October 20, 2009

A Need for Correction: Reforming New York's Juvenile Justice System

Half the children housed in New York State’s juvenile correctional facilities suffer from mental illness, yet there is not one psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse on the staff of the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the facilities.

That’s one of the findings of a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School entitled “A Need for Correction: Reforming New York’s Juvenile Justice System.” Coming in the wake of a federal Department of Justice investigation that found widespread use of excessive force by staff at four OCFS facilities upstate, this new report identifies shortcomings in mental health services and explores possible solutions, including the expansion of alternatives to incarceration for juvenile delinquents.

The report was released today, in conjunction with a forum from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., at Theresa Lang Community & Student Center, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor. The forum included a panel discussion on the juvenile justice system with two legal experts, a child psychologist, a state legislator and a member of one of the unions representing OCFS employees.

The new report acknowledges that OCFS has made improvements in the past two years, including tripling the number of social workers and psychologists who work in the juvenile correctional facilities. But the report found many shortcomings in psychiatric care and describes how a “combustible mix” of mentally ill youth and fatigued line-staff (some of whom routinely work 16-hour days) can lead to violent confrontations.

The report examines alternative-to-incarceration programs that offer supervision and guidance to juvenile delinquents at home, in their own communities. Family Court judges have relied increasingly on these programs in the past decade, leading to a dramatic decrease in the number of youth admitted to juvenile justice facilities, from 1,938 in 2000 to 813 in 2008.

The report contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers address issues of mental illness and juvenile justice.

Child Welfare Watch is published jointly by the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. This edition is made possible thanks to generous grants from the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, the Viola W. Bernard Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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