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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 8, 2007

State needs coherent plan for Cass

Rensselaerville residents have been on a wild roller-coaster ride these past few months. Many of them said they had lived in fear of the non-secure juvenile detention center in their midst.

Seven of the boys who lived at the Cass Residential Center had escaped in the past two years. The rural facility could house up to 25 youths who ranged in age from 14 to 18 and was designed to serve non-violent offenders, who had been charged with parole violations, possession of marijuana, sale or distribution of controlled substances, or criminal mischief. They were offered training in horticulture and food preparation.

The most recent escape was last November and, although the Cass director called the 15-year-old a "good boy," he broke into Robert Johnston’s house, stole $50 from his wife’s purse, and drove off in their Ford Explorer — all while the Johnstons slept. The youth drove home to Poughkeepsie, where his father turned him in to authorities.

"I never used to lock my doors, but now I am," Johnston told us at the time. "I never knew where the bullets to the gun were, but I can tell you where they are now."

At the emotional heart of residents’ fears was a rape and kidnapping that occurred at Cass just over two years ago. The middle-aged kitchen worker who was raped at knife point by a Cass resident turned into an activist.

She circulated a petition, signed by 500 locals, calling for the facility to be shut down. We commend her courage and commitment in rallying others to try to keep such a crime from occurring in her town again.

Hopes in Rensselaerville were raised when the facility was emptied, then dashed when officials said it was just for renovations.

The state’s Office of Children and Family Services, which runs the facility, came up with proposals to beef up security with cameras, coded locks, added radios and head counts, security lighting, and a 16-foot-high perimeter fence. They emptied the facility and promised the new residents, all non-violent offenders, would be younger — up to age 16 — and would be local.

Rensselaerville residents packed town hall last month and said it wasn’t enough — they wanted Cass closed.

Hopes were raised again last week when OCFS announced, as widely reported in the media, that Cass will be used as a training academy for staff at other state juvenile facilities. Although many residents hailed this announcement as a final victory, it’s too soon to celebrate. An OCFS spokesperson told us Tuesday, "At this time, no children will be placed at Cass."

At this time — fine. But what about next month" Or next year" Or the year after"

The office has sent no clear and believable message to the public. The facility may well be used for youthful offenders after months of use as a training facility.

A spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation told us this week that the sudden change in mission for Cass is against the law. Last year, a law was passed that requires OCFS to give at least 12 months of notice to consumer organizations, advocacy groups, employee organizations, and affected communities if it plans to close or significantly diminish a state-operated facility.

Aside from breaking the law, the OCFS is being unfair to the public and to the juveniles it serves not to have a better laid out, more cohesive plan.

The OCFS spokesman told us this week that the reason for the switch was another training site was needed, excess beds for youth were available in other facilities, and there would be savings in not having to put up the fence.

The supervisor of Rensselaerville, Jost Nickelsberg, on Tuesday saw the change in Cass’s mission as a victory for democracy. "If they don’t give up and they stay on something, there’s nothing the citizens can’t do," said Nickelsberg. "Government belongs to the people."

A good government helps all of its people, and the progress of a society can often be measured in how it treats its weakest members, which includes its young. The first juvenile court system in our country was created in the 1890’s, a recognition that youthful offenders were different than adults.

Each state has its own juvenile justice system. New York State has secure, limited secure, and non-secure residential centers as well as community residential homes and evening reporting centers, where offenders spend afternoons and evenings in constructive activities while living at home and staying in school.

Over a quarter of a century ago, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention sponsored a study that concluded these factors have "critical impact" on good services: The amount of money available for services, the quality of personnel with which the system is staffed, and the personal leadership of the judiciary in stimulating community interest and support.

Youth who are non-violent offenders don’t belong in jails and prisons. According to a national survey published by OJJDP, young people held in adult facilities are sexually assaulted five times more often than youth in juvenile facilities, assaulted by staff twice as often, and assaulted with a weapon 50 percent more often. Youth in jails commit suicide eight times more often than youth in juvenile detention facilities — and 11,000 youth commit 17,000 suicidal acts in juvenile facilities each year.

Even for serious juvenile offenders, programs that show the strongest, most consistent impact on recidivism are those with personal skills training, individual counseling, and behavioral programs for offenders who aren’t institutionalized, and programs with skills training and community-based, family-type group homes for institutionalized offenders, according to Effective Intervention for Serious Juvenile Offenders, a bulletin put out by the United States Department of Justice and OJJDP.

One program particularly stands out — the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative — as a beacon of successful change. Since it began in 1992, there are now 75 JDAI sites in 19 states. New York is not among them and we believe, particularly as the governor is slashing prison spending, New York should consider the approach.

"We believe that all youth involved in the juvenile justice system should have opportunities to develop into healthy, productive adults as a result of policies, practices, and programs that maximize their chances for personal transformation, protect their legal rights, reduce their likelihood of unnecessary or inappropriate incarceration, and minimize the risks they pose to their communities," states the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which developed the approach.

"Research has shown that juvenile detention had critical, long-lasting consequences for court-involved youth," the foundation says. "Detention disrupts already tenuous connections in school, services and families."

Detention does not improve public safety, the foundation says, and is costly — averaging $70,000 annually to operate a single detention bed.

The foundation details scores of places across the country using JDAI where the average daily detention population dropped significantly, from Essex County in New Jersey (a 43-percent drop) to Multnomah County in Oregon (a 65-percent drop).

The money saved has been used for more productive programs, often in partnership with the community.

The JDAI programs, the foundation says, should, wherever possible, be based in those neighborhoods where detention cases are concentrated and operated by local organizations.

That is where things went seriously awry in Rensselaerville. Most of the juveniles weren’t from the community and had no ties to it. The community, for its part, had once been supportive and interacted with the youth who would work on the Hilltown farms and visit the local library, but that trust was displaced by fear when the facility was poorly run.

Distrust has grown as Rensselaerville citizens and local leaders get mixed messages and constantly changing answers about the facility in their midst. We urge OCFS to come up with a coherent and sensible long-term plan and then publicize it.

We wholeheartedly support the idea of working with wayward youth so they can become productive citizens and we think Cass could be a worthwhile training ground. Our future, as a whole society, depends on it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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