Report on Conditions in New York Juvenile Prisons "Very Disturbing," Says Law School Expert


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New York, Dec. 14, 2009 New York confines juvenile offenders in prisons that are often violent and can leave youths worse off than when they first entered a system ill-equipped to help them, said Columbia Law School Professor Elizabeth Scott, a leading juvenile justice expert.
Scott agreed with the conclusions in a scathing report issued Monday by a task force appointed by Gov. David Paterson, which found that thousands of children are imprisoned – often for crimes no more serious than misdemeanors – without first determining whether they pose a threat to the public.
“The report is very disturbing but it offers the opportunity for the state to respond by implementing policies that are not only more humane and fair to young offenders but that also are likely to reduce the social cost of juvenile crime,” Scott said.
There are also financial costs to consider. Scott, the Harold R. Medina Professor in Procedural Jurisprudence and Vice Dean, noted it cost about $210,000 annually to confine a juvenile offender, money she said is wasted as most youths are non-violent and do not need confinement.
“They can benefit from far less expensive community-based programs, such as therapeutic foster care, which the state is using increasingly as a substitute for incarceration,” Scott said.
Indeed, the report noted that many youths enter detention facilities drug-addicted or with mental illness, and receive inadequate treatment. At the same time, they are often subjected to abuse at the hands of violent offenders and staff using excessive force.
“It comes as no surprise, then, that not only do youth leave facilities without having received the support they need to become law-abiding citizens,” the report said, “but many are also more angry, fearful, or violent than they were when they entered.”
Scott said such conditions made it essential to keep all but the most violent offenders out of confinement, and instead use community-based correctional programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
“The research indicates that most juvenile offenders ‘mature out’ of their inclination to get involved in criminal activity-- unless the justice system in its dispositions pushes them in the direction of becoming career criminals,” Scott said.
The report found that for the more violent youths who do require detention, New York should “treat and rehabilitate them, not hurt and harden them.” However, for other juvenile offenders, Scott said, putting them in prison is “bad policy for them and for the rest of us.”
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