Seven years ago, New York City stopped sending convicted juvenile offenders hours away to upstate youth prisons.
"Those were gladiator schools,” said Vincent Schiraldi, the co-director of Columbia University’s Justice Lab.“They were schools for crime where kids were learning to be worse."
State and city officials agreed. Instead, teens were placed in city facilities or even their own homes under the Close to Home program.
Vincent Schiraldi was the city's probation commissioner back then and helped to establish the program. He says it has been a major success.
"Today, the biggest city in the country, New York, only has a hundred kids in any kind of placement from its juvenile court,” Schiraldi said. “And only twelve of them are in a locked facility."
Nearly 4,000 juveniles were in upstate prisons in the mid-1990s. Columbia University’s Justice Lab has just released a study on what's characterized as drastic improvements to juvenile rehabilitation because of the Close to Home policy. Schiraldi says most convicted teens under the age of 16 are actually serving their time in their own homes.
"A 70 percent reduction in kids [being] taken out of their homes. And we put a lot of services and support in those homes, in the young people's homes, so they could make it without having to get locked up," Schiraldi said.
Schiraldi says it was widely agreed that spending $250,000 a year for each teen to be housed in an upstate prison was wasted tax money, especially when 70 percent of them would end up back in youth prison.
"Like nine out of ten kids pass all of their classes now. And nine out of ten kids go to community programs when they are on their way out,” Schiraldi said. “And juvenile crime is down."
Schiraldi also says that only about eight percent of the youthful offenders return to youth facilities.
A dramatic improvement, indeed.