Northern Rivers New Directions — for now, an empty promise

The Northern Rivers facility in Schenectady — recently toured by reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair — looks like a model for helping young women who have been arrested under New York’s new Raise the Age legislation.

New York had been one of only two states that treated 16-year-olds as adults under the law. Since last October, most 16-year-olds were to have their charges heard in Family Court and not to be sent to prison with adults; the law phases in 17-year-olds this October.

We have for decades in this space called for New York to develop a justice system for youth that follows what brain research clearly shows.

“Brain research — and even brain-imaging technology — has had an impact in changing people’s views,” said Elizabeth S. Scott, a Columbia professor and co-author of “Rethinking Juvenile Justice,” in a Columbia Law School Magazine article. “There’s something about colorful pictures of the brain that seems to impress people. When they can actually see the differences in adolescent brains, they can believe it.”

Harvard neurologists Frances Jensen and David Urion have found that the brain is only about 80-percent developed in adolescents. The cortex, the brain’s largest part, is divided into lobes that mature from back to front. The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment.

“The idea is,” said Scott, “because of their immature brains, adolescents may be more likely to engage in reckless and sensation-seeking behavior — and to get involved in criminal activity.”

Scott studied the matter as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network. Its director, Dr. Lawrence Steinberg, reported, “The Network set out to find scientific evidence of whether juveniles were different enough from adults to merit different treatment by the courts.

“What we found was that young offenders are significantly unlike adults in ways that matter a great deal for effective treatment, appropriate punishment, and delinquency prevention. Society needs a system that understands kids’ capacities and limits, and that punishes them in developmentally appropriate ways.”

That is precisely what the set-up at Northern Rivers would do. The New Directions program there is to center on the bonding between youth and staff. “It’s not about the building; it’s not about the regulations,” said William Gettman Jr., Northern Rivers’s chief executive officer. “Ninety percent is about relationships.”

The New Directions program — which consists of eight months of residency and four months of aftercare — includes the offender’s family as well.

The approach is two-pronged: helping the young woman develop skills to sustain her without turning to crime, and working with her family and its ties to the community to create permanent supports.

Family involvement is essential to avoid recidivism, as we wrote here late last year in an editorial calling for facilities to house Raise the Age offenders close to home. The Northern Rivers facility is just that.

“Raise the Age was predicated on bad outcomes of 60, 70 percent recidivism,” Gettman told Floyd Mair. “We want to change that,” he said, noting his program’s goal is “no recidivism, or low recidivism.”

So this marks a long-awaited solution to an important problem. But a huge hurdle remains: Not a single one of the eight beds in Northern Rivers’s New Directions program has been filled.

New Directions received start-up money from the state, Gettman said, and then, on Dec. 15, 2018, began receiving $1,050 per day per bed, regardless of whether the bed was occupied, in an arrangement that will continue for the program’s first three years, which Gettman called a “three-year safety net.”  So far, the state has paid about $1.5 million to Northern Rivers for the New Directions program that has not yet been used. Not a single young woman has been sent there.

We don’t begrudge Northern Rivers the funding. A risk was taken to set up this service and those qualified professionals staffing the program of course should be compensated.

The same problem exists across the state where a total of 171 beds are ready and waiting for youthful offenders but less than 12 percent have been filled. In the local program alone, $1.5 million is a lot of money in just six months to have gone for nothing when the needs are great in the criminal justice system. And, multiplied for unused programs across the state, the sum is staggering.

We understand that the program is new. As Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the Unified Court System, told Floyd Mair, not many cases have yet been adjudicated under Raise the Age.

He continued, “While it is my understanding that relatively few young people are being detained in facilities, that was one of the goals of the law: To keep as many young people safely in their communities as possible and to keep communities safe with them not committing additional crimes while released — not to fill all available beds.” 

The question then becomes: Why should the state have arranged, and paid, for so many beds if they were not needed?

Floyd Mair sent a list of questions to the spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, which set up the programs. We wanted to know how many beds were currently available and how many more were planned, how many young men and women were currently in those programs, and what crimes brought them there.

Further, we wanted to know if the office, in setting up the program, expected more placements at this point and why so few youths are being placed in the new programs.

Our questions were not answered.

“We believe the system will be appropriate to serve youth entering foster care, based upon projected bed need analyzed by a multi-state agency data team,” wrote OCFS spokeswoman Monica Mahaffey in a blanket non-answer to our list of questions.

We believe the public deserves answers not just because taxpayers are paying the bill but because the way our youth are treated  — and ultimately either hurt or helped by the criminal-justice system — affects the entire society.

Floyd Mair asked each of the seven candidates in the Democratic primary for Albany County Family Court judge his or her views on Raise the Age and the so-far-underused facilities 

One of the candidates, William P. Andrews, suggested residential facilities might be better used as “step-down facilities,” to reward success and good behavior at a secure facility.

Another candidate,  David J. Levy, said, “I would be more inclined to use the facility for individuals who are repeat offenders.”

As Raise the Age continues to be implemented, such discussion is valuable and, if the state agency at the center of administering the programs were more forthcoming, the discussion would be better informed and more fruitful.

Successful programs for youthful offenders, cutting back on recidivism, not only save money in the long run but increase public safety and improve the quality of life in our communities. In short, our society is stronger if the justice system handles our youth properly.

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