Wanted: One Time Offenders

Bedford Jail Cell by gloomy50 via Flickr.

Less of this. That’s the goal.

How do our communities handle disruptive, or even dangerous, children and teenagers?  In the judicial system, answering that question has always been a difficult and often tense undertaking.  Is a young person who commits a criminal act a criminal?  Or just under a bad influence?   Do they need tough love, or just empathy and a safe space?  Should we institutionalize them, or is it better to leave them with their families and communities?

These are tough questions and do not have easy answers.  Still, dedicated women and men are trying to figure out how to improve the lot of children and youthful offenders – before they become accustomed to a life in and out of the criminal courts.

The New York Times recently reported on the growth of effective youthful offender housing in New York City. It is part of the “Close To Home” program developed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Young people with relatively minor offenses such as turnstile jumping, obstruction, or some acts of fighting – what are often termed “delinquencies” – are not sent to prisons upstate, but remain in their local communities.

And even if it isn’t foolproof, there are signs of improvement with this program.  About 400 youths have been involved in “Close to Home” since it began. Of those, 40 have been arrested again and 73 were gone for more than a day without permission.  But, it does look like a difference is being made:

There have also been successes: 90 youths completed their sentences (an average of seven months), and nearly every resident is earning credits with the city’s Education Department, something that is impossible upstate. Only three teenagers were sent to higher-security institutions.

At this point, it is too early to tell how successful the program will be.  What we know is that for some, at least, there is good work being done.  Young people are closer to their families, to the lawyers who represent them, to their communities – and some are learning how to improve their lives.  Maybe miracles are too much to ask for in this case, but progress is progress!

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