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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 14, 2008

A welcome change for Cass

The State Park Police have found a new home. They will be trained in an appropriately park-like setting in rural Albany County.

We welcome them and welcome the decision that may finally leave residents of rural Rensselaerville at peace.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced this week that it will convert Cass Residential Center into a training academy for the park police. The parks office will save money since it will no longer have to rent space for recruits during their half-year of training. And Cass is close to the agency’s central office.

The parks office plans to spend a half-million dollars converting and upgrading the facility, which can’t hurt the local economy.

But more important than the dollars and cents, there’s a chance to build a good relationship now between Cass and the community. We urge Parks and Recreation to be straightforward in its dealings with the town and to keep Rensselaerville’s elected leaders informed of its plans as they unfold.

The locals have good reason to be wary. The last state agency to run Cass, the Office of Children and Family Services, was often not forthright in answering questions and had unexplained and, some said, illegal changes in plans and purpose.

The rural facility had housed youth who were in trouble with the law. While the community had once been supportive and interacted with the boys who would work on Hilltown farms and visit the local library, that trust was displaced by fear when the facility was poorly run.

Three years ago, a middle-aged kitchen worker was raped at knifepoint and kidnapped by a Cass inmate. Several escapes followed. In the fall of 2006, a 15-year-old runaway 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.

"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."

The rape survivor turned into an activist, and circulated a petition, signed by 500 residents, calling for Cass to be shut down. The Office of Children and Family Services 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. Residents said it wasn’t enough; they wanted Cass closed.

OCFS said it would train workers at Cass instead, but no state workers are being trained there now. And as long as Cass was under OCFS control, residents were wary about how it might be used.

We hope they can relax now. With police training at Cass, maybe Mr. Johnston can set aside his gun.

We still believe that 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. Youth who are non-violent offenders don’t belong in jails and prisons. The most successful programs for juvenile offenders are those with skills training and community-based family-type group homes. Detention is expensive in facilities like Cass and disrupts important connections with school and family. Youthful offenders need to be in programs where they can connect to their community, not live in isolation like they did at Cass.

The rift that deepened between Cass and Rensselaerville residents who got mixed messages and constantly changing answers about the facility in their midst, now has a chance to mend. The town’s supervisor, Jost Nickelsberg, is even talking about building trails to link Cass to local parks.

We’re glad there’s no 16-foot-high fence to get around. And we hope the plans for a state parks training facility are carried through to fruition.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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