Fewer Youth are Locked Up in New York, But They’re Still Mostly Kids of Color
Fewer Youth are Locked Up in New York, But They’re Still Mostly Kids of Color

This article originally appeared in The Imprint by Steven Yoder. Sherri Simmons-Horton, Assistant Professor of Social Work, is quoted.


April 27, 2021 — After a decadelong plummet in the number of youth locked up in the state’s youth prisons, New York decided earlier this month to shutter two juvenile facilities. The number of kids ages 8 to 21 held today is almost half what it was 10 years ago.

That remarkable trend hasn’t changed who’s inside: mostly Black and brown youth. In the state’s highest-security juvenile prisons, nearly all those locked up are people of color.

Shrinking juvenile prison numbers nationwide are “worth celebrating,” said Joshua Rovner, senior advocacy associate at The Sentencing Project, a national organization working to reform racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But racial disproportionality inside hurts the credibility of the entire system, he added: “Teenagers have a great sense of what is fair and unfair, and when they look around and see a facility full of people of color, they know something is amiss.”

New York’s cratering youth prison numbers don’t necessarily show that the state’s juvenile justice system has gotten less punitive. Instead, youth are getting into legal trouble less often.

Arrests of those younger than age 16 fell statewide by almost 70% from 2010 to 2018, as did the number of arrests of those under 18  outside of New York City in roughly the same period. A national government survey of self reports over the past two to three decades shows steady declines of young people carrying a weapon, getting involved in violence or using illegal drugs.

To be sure, police in some jurisdictions, including those in upstate New York, have said they’ve seen a spike in car thefts, robberies and other crimes by young people since the pandemic hit last spring. It is not possible to confirm those claims, however, because 2020 juvenile arrest data for the state aren’t yet available, according to Janine Kava, spokesperson for the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

The continued disproportionality of those who are locked up has significant implications for public safety. When kids perceive the justice system is unfair, that itself places them at greater risk of getting into trouble, said Sherri Simmons-Horton, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Simmons-Horton, who interviews youth in the juvenile justice and foster care systems, said the racial distortions they see make them more likely to have a “fight or flight” reaction to law enforcement.

“The problem with that for me is, that’s how they become socialized,” she said. As a Black mom, I’m trying to socialize my boys to respond to police but not hate police.”

Other researchers have found that young people respond far better to systems they think are unbiased, and that perception impacts their behavior in positive ways. A 2014 Canadian study published in the American Psychological Association’s Law and Human Behavior journal found that when kids believed the justice system was procedurally fair, their short-term recidivism rates dropped. That work is part of a decades-old body of social science research and legal precedent that connects young people’s beliefs that they were justly treated with a lower likelihood that they’ll reoffend.

Yet that’s not what youth of color see today, said Luis Hernandez, 19, the national director of youth campaigns and leadership at The Gathering for Justice advocacy group in New York City.

“Being held for petty crimes because of the color of their skin, because of the community that they come from, because of the ZIP codes that they don’t get to decide — that’s the reality that young folks understand from the moment of arrest,” said Hernandez, who also co-founded the group Youth Over Guns.

That perception is generally borne out by the data. Youth of color are treated more harshly at every stage of the justice system. “And that’s true after you control for everything that you would want to control for,” Rovner said, including youth of color with the same offending history as their white peers receiving stiffer punishments.

A young person’s home community is also a factor, according to state data. In contrast with state and national trends, the number of kids in state lockups who come from two populous counties north of New York City — Erie and Dutchess counties — have spiked compared with 10 years ago. Those counties, home to the cities of Buffalo and Poughkeepsie, also have higher proportions of people of color than the average upstate county.

Spokespeople for the county executives in Erie and Dutchess counties did not respond to requests for comment.

Mapping where kids in state confinement are coming from could help explain who’s inside, but to date, the state has not shared this information publicly.

According to the latest aggregate state data from 2020, youth of color represent more than 70% of youth in state lockups, though youth of color make up just 42% of the state’s under-18 population. In the state’s most high-security youth prisons, the numbers are even more distorted: Of the 85 young people held there on the last day of 2020, 74 were youth of color.

The recently approved state budget authorizes the closing of two youth facilities this year — the Columbia Girls Secure Center and Red Hook Residential Center. The governor’s stated reason for proposing the cuts was cost — in some institutions close to $1 million per youth each year.

Although the state did not fulfill The Imprint’s request for information about the cost of each of its facilities, it reported that the total spent for 13 facilities in fiscal year 2019 was roughly $130 million, of which $102 million went to salaries.

The outsize numbers of Black youth in New York’s youth prisons are part of a cycle that scholars of urban neighborhoods have long highlighted. Many of these young people grow up in communities of concentrated poverty in which they are subject to discrimination, high rates of unemployment, violence, crime, incarceration and early death.

Following a year of international protests over police brutality in Black communities, there is growing attention to the urgent need for intervention. In a March report, the New York City-based nonprofit Square One Project looked at a new model for cutting violence, arguing for moving away from sole reliance on police to community-driven approaches that have been proven to work. Those include expanded summer youth employment, better lighting in public spaces and more public health nurses, non-law enforcement “violence interrupters” and mental health workers. Included in that proposal is a plan for a new coalition of residents and community organizations to be the primary institution responsible for public safety.

New York state’s disproportionate numbers should make the public question how successful juvenile justice reforms enacted statewide have been, said Hernandez, whose brother spent a year at Rikers Island at age 15 on a charge that the state later dropped.

As part of the state’s 2017 Raise the Age law, 16- and 17-year-olds are no longer housed at Rikers, a change motivated in part by Kalief Browder’s three-year confinement there without trial and his subsequent 2015 death by suicide.

“We can say that reform is working because we’ve seen the population dramatically decrease,” Hernandez said. “But then we need to put the question to ourselves: ‘Well, who is it working for?’”

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