Diversion, Not Incarceration, Should Be the Goal for Juveniles
Raising the Age for criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years of age was the humane thing to do. Subsequently, however, we seem to have lost sight of the humane part of the equation.
A sickening situation has been developing under the radar quite rapidly that affects our youth. Our County Probation Department is planning to build a 130-bed extension to Woodfield Cottage, a juvenile detention center — a jail for children.
One of the consequences of raising the age for delinquents from 16 to 18 is that there will be more youth in the Juvenile System. The 17- and 18-year-olds will no longer be housed at the County Jail, or the highly successful Youth Shelter Program.
It has been known for generations that the further a young person penetrates the justice system the less likely they are to be able to turn themselves around and be productive citizens. The key to helping young people in trouble with the law is diversion.
There are numerous ways to divert youth from the system using community- based services. It starts with the police. When policemen are poised to arrest a youth, they have many options at their disposal: youth development services, community service, church-sponsored youth groups, mental health services, etc. Arrest should be the last resort.
If the youth is eventually arrested, the same holds true for diversion by Probation pretrial services as well as Family Court. The last option should be jail — incarceration at Woodfield Detention Center — and yet Probation is planning to build a 130-bed extension. As a stop gap they are putting up two prefab structures on the grounds of Woodfield – one 20-bed building for boys and one 10-bed building for girls. Woodfield currently has 24 beds, with the ability to expand their capacity to 32. Their average population from five counties on any given day is 14 youth ages 13 to 16. (Over 50% are youth of color.)
Probation claims that they need 130 beds because the State wants Westchester to serve a ten-county region. (In 2016 there were a total of 15 youth in detention from these ten counties, including Westchester, according to the NYS Office of Children and Families.)
As compensation for the strain on the Juvenile Justice System, the State is providing money for construction and staffing of a jail for children, but diversion money only for “Raise the Age” children in the system. Every dollar spent on incarceration should be matched with a dollar for diversion. We need to be looking at the system as a whole and diverting youth as early as possible.
This incarceration plan is a travesty and needs to be stopped. Surely there is a better way of providing justice for our youth.
—Ann Barringer Spaeth,
The Anti-Racist Alliance