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Advocates: Preliminary research shows Close to Home is worth fighting for

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Advocates gathered at Columbia University on March 16 to discuss the fate of the Close to Home juvenile justice program. (Illustration by Zach Williams/ NYN Media)

Jeremy Taveras was 13 years old in 2009 when he was incarcerated for gang-related activity and sent to an Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) facility six hours from his home. Because visiting him would require so much time and money Taveras told his mother, “Come up once on my birthday, that’s all I need.”

But Taveras soon found that his needs were not being met at the upstate facility – and home was so far away.

“I’m there with people that are 18 years old. Being at that secure setting is really traumatizing for a youth,” said Taveras. He was one of a number of panelists including researchers, city officials and advocates, gathered for a recent discussion hosted by the Columbia University Justice Lab on the Close to Home (C2H) initiative – and whether it is worth saving as it faces the elimination of $41.4 million in state funding.

In 2012, Taveras was relocated to a Close to Home facility and his life changed.

“Close to Home is a very different experience,” said Taveras. “They treat you more like family and they give you the support that you need to change your life. They mature you and mold you to become the person you’re supposed to be.”

Now, Taveras works at a C2H facility and credits the program with helping him get his life on track. His story is one of many facilitated by C2H, enacted in 2012, which allows New York City teens charged with lower level crimes to be placed in homes run by nonprofits in or near their own neighborhoods, instead of being sent upstate to detention facilities. By 2016, OCFS facilities no longer housed any convicted youth.

Advocates are fighting to save C2H from budget cuts proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would eliminate state funding for the program just as Raise the Age legislation – mandating that 16 and 17-year-olds are held in age-appropriate facilities like C2H – takes effect. The Columbia University Justice Lab, which has received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to conduct a case study of C2H, convened their March 16 forum months earlier than originally planned in order to share preliminary findings on the program’s results in the midst of the effort to keep it alive.

 

“You can’t continue to reform like this without funding,” said Marsha Weissman, CEO of the Center for Community Alternatives.

“You can’t hold providers to the best standards if you don’t fund them properly. You can’t work with kids in the best way, without, frankly, money,” said Weissman.

A number of key statistics seem to show that C2H is a contributing factor in improved outcomes for youth involved with the juvenile justice system. New York City has seen a 53 percent decline in youth arrests, a 37 percent decline in youth detention, and a 68 percent decline in out-of-home placements. New York state has seen 41 percent, 31 percent, and 20 percent declines, respectively in the same categories. Direct causality cannot be determined from the data, and other reforms such as the end of stop and frisk certainly contributed as well, however city officials see the program as having a lot of promise.

“Young people, when they’re kept out of the system all together, even when they’re arrested, they do better,” said Panelist Anna Bermudez, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation.

Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie. E. Casey Foundation, says the program has proven to be more effective at helping youth compared to incarceration in upstate facilities. “These young people are showing us that they can, in fact, succeed,” said McCarthy. “Kids do best in supportive families – supportive families who are supported by their communities.”

Youth in C2H also showed strong academic progress: 91 percent of C2H youth passed their academic classes in the 2016-2017 school year. In addition, 82 percent of youth transitioned from C2H to a parent or other family member and 91 percent of youth transitioned into community-based programs.

With Raise the Age set to begin in October 2019, experts estimate the number of youths entering C2H will more than triple, going from 195 youths to 685. “It couldn’t be a worse time to cut funding,” said Weissman.

“Nonprofit leaders who have had a major role in the success of Close to Home should be celebrating,” said Vincent Schiraldi, senior research scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work, “Instead of being forced to defend this initiative.”

The orginal version of this story misstated the president and CEO of the Annie. E. Casey Foundation. His first name is Patrick McCarthy, not Andrew McCarthy.

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