By Pam Frederick
Mark R. can hold or blade inside his cheek and talk at the same time. He can also spin it around and spit it out without drawing his own blood. He learned this from a friend who can spin five blades with his tongue at one time. Mark explains these tricks can be of real use in a juvenile detention where sharp, concealed objects abound–the goal is to be as intimidating as possible.
When he was younger, Mark counted himself among the intimidators. He spent his early adolescence skipping school and smoking weed. By the time he was 15, he was experimenting with armed robbery. That’s when he and his friends were arrested for mugging a man at gunpoint in Central Park. When a judge offered him a break on the condition that he go back to school and get counseling, he took it–and then blithely kept the same company, remaining sullen and truant.
It wasn’t until the judge, disgusted, hauled him back into court to face the robbery charges that Mark learned he wasn’t cut out for prison. Waiting in the holding pen at Manhattan Supreme Court, another kid forced him to hand over his jacket. Remarking on Mark’s fine, chiseled features, he then pulled out a concealed razor blade and threatened to cut Mark’s face. The next 10 days at Spofford Juvenile Center, the city’s pre-trial detention center in the South Bronx, were no better. By the time Mark found himself in front of the judge for sentencing, he considered the possibility that the one-to-three years he faced upstate could end in his own death.
“I just started tearing,” he admits. “Ten days is enough in there. Two days is enough. I thought, if I stay in here too long, I might never be able to come out.”
Mark would have been sent to one of the state’s five Division for Youth (DFY) secure detention facilities, and probably trans-ferred later to an adult prison, had he not met Nancy Bradley while he was at Spofford. Bradley is a court advocate for the Youth Advocacy Project (YAP), an alternative-to-sentencing program run by the Center for Community Alternatives.
After spending some time with the boy, Bradley recommended that the judge give Mark one more shot. The judge agreed, sending him back home to live under the daily watch of the pro-gram’s counselors.
YAP targets today’s most controversial young lawbreakers–those who before age 16 are arrested and charged with extremely serious and usually violent crimes such as armed robbery, assault, auto theft and even murder. In the last year, some 1,500 of these 13- to l5-year-olds, known in the court system as “juvenile offenders,” were tried in adult court because their crimes were deemed too severe under state law to warrant the latitude and services offered by judges in the Family Court system.
The thought of giving such kids a break runs counter to the popular current nowadays. Conservative criminologists, armed with disturbing stories about a new generation of young teens committing senseless acts of violence, predict that rates of juvenile violence, now spiking, will climb again in the near future and that teen “predators” will eventually shatter the peace that city dwellers have enjoyed of late. Federal and state politicians of both political parties, tapping into this sentiment, are competing to pass laws that would jail more kids at younger ages for longer periods of time.
But many people who work with this population–from youth workers and lawyers to cops and judges–argue the politicians and criminologists are establishing a dangerous and expensive new trend. While few dispute that many violent young teens deserve long periods of incarceration, advocates of alternative approaches say that many of these kids could remain safely in their communities, given rigorous oversight, training and support. They say that this approach is more likely to prevent the youngster from com-mitting crimes again. And it is also far less expensive to the tax-payers, at one-eighth the annual cost of incarceration.
“We have an obligation as a society to identify those kids who can still be salvaged,” says Supreme Court Judge Michael Corriero who, as the sole judge for Manhattan Criminal Court’s busy Youth Part, opted to place Mark with Nancy Bradley’s program. “We have to ask, what lessons will be learned in a DFY facility? And more importantly, how safe will we be when we free this child?”
Bradley stands in front of a classroom packed with Spofford’s latest arrivals, sitting at attention in gray plastic chairs. It is her job to eyeball the “new jacks” arriving at Spofford each week and to pluck out the one, maybe two, kids who both fit into her program’s tight specifications and show a genuine interest in her rap.
“This is a program for people who want to help themselves.” She fires off the words quickly, in a stern voice. “If you want to not go to school, this is not the program for you. If you want to do the wrong thing, this is not the program for you. If you want to hang out, this is not the program for you.”
The kids she chooses should consider themselves lucky. The Youth Advocacy Project has room for about 75 teens each year. Two other programs–the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services and the Kings County Juvenile Offender Program–also provide similar opportunities for very young violent offenders, but last year, altogether, the three programs combined had the capacity to serve fewer than 220 of New York City’s 1,500 juvenile offenders.
Picking who gets to go home is crucial decision for programs like YAP. The program’s credibility depends on choosing kids who will stay out of trouble under its watch–and, if all goes well, long after.
In fact, Bradley does not have the luxury of choosing from among the sweeter candidates. Some of these children are likely to be sentenced to probation anyway, which is relatively cheap. Alternatives-to-sentencing programs, which cost an average of $10,000 per-child per-year, must focus on kids who would otherwise be facing an expensive $86,000-a-year stay in a secure youth correctional facility. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to prove to lawmakers and funders that they are saving gov-ernment money.
As a result, YAP requires that participating teens already have some experience in jail–remember, Mark didn’t begin to take the system seriously until his unfortunate experience in Spofford. And they should be facing likely sentences of at least one-to-three years upstate, according to Marsha Weissman, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives.
Court advocates conduct long interviews with the children, looking for candidates likely to respond well to rehabilitation, she explains. Instead of being the triggerman-types, they tend to be criminal accessories–even though they face the same serious charges. Just as important, the court advocate must be convinced that the child has some kind of stable environment at home. While YAP’s counselors will check on the teenager daily, his guardians are supposed to be responsible for him all day long. Unfortunately, Weissman says, this tends to be the hardest requirement to fulfill.
“We take the cream of the crop from the bottom of the barrel,” Bradley says. “These kids aren’t choir boys. If they could do everything right, they wouldn’t be here in the first place. But if a kid seems decent, we try to give him a break.”
From his mother’s 11th-floor apartment on Ogden Avenue in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Mark looks out over one of the more crime-ridden neighborhoods in New York City. Every empty lot is encircled with razor wire. The few free-standing homes are barricaded with fences and window bars. Mark calls the place “Crimealot.”
In the two square miles surrounding his apartment building, 54 percent of the population is on public assistance. Police officers consider the public housing project one block to the west to be so unsafe that they admit being fearful of going there. This is the world in which Mark became and admitted felon at age 15. It was during the last raw days of winter in March 1993 when Mark and two of his friends began pulling in a steady income holding people up at gunpoint in Central Park, robbing them in broad daylight. It was a simple economic decision, Mark says, fueled by bravado and beer. The three had been sitting around drinking one day when they discovered a gun in a friend’s apart-ment and decided to put it to use. To their astonishment, it was an easy gig: point the gun, take the money. Their first day out they each got $30.
“We thought, ‘Let’s do this tomorrow, same time, same place,” Mark recalls. Altogether, they managed to commit five muggings before they were caught. Mark tells the story in a rap he’s written.
- I used to rock with the stick-up kids,
Goin to Central Park
to rob the whites is what I did.
Straight up, broad daylight
‘cause my shit stayed tight
Count up all the dough
and cop the smoke for the late night
The cops, he says, were out of their car with their guns drawn before the car stopped rolling.
- But when we jumped out the park
there go the whole brigade
with their shades on,
and their Glocks out,
my luck just dropped out
I went the wrong route.
He spent that night in central booking and was released the next day on his own recognizance. Three months later, he appeared in front of Judge Corriero. Mark, who had held the gun, pleaded guilty to second degree armed robbery and was sentenced to one year in a youth program followed by five years of probation.
But counselors for two different programs–the Dome and the Door–had little success with the boy. Mark says he liked the Door and began taking classes there, Still, he decided to drop out of high school, continued to smoke marijuana and hang out with the friends with whom he had gotten into trouble. A year and a half later, after Mark missed a key court appearance, Corriero sent him to Spofford.
After two years bouncing around the juvenile justice system, accepting little of the help it offered, Mark had finally got his wake-up call. He was admitted into the Youth Advocacy Program in January 1995 at age 17.
The top priority for Eddie Gregg, Mark’s first counselor, was to get him into drug rehabilitation. Both agreed Mark would have to kick his marijuana habit and somehow break away from the crowd he was tight with in his first two years of high school. “I got trapped running into friends, girls,” Mark admits. “I just wanted to hang out, get high and stuff.”
YAP’s counselors attempt to stay close to their kids like glue, accounting for each minute of their day on the theory that a busy teenager stays out of trouble. Participants are required to attend school or find work. In their free time, they are encouraged to visit with their counselors or attend workshops designed by the staff. At intervals throughout the day, counselors check in by phone, talking frequently with parents, guardians and school staff.
Counselors also make frequent home visits, giving them a sense of what the teen is up against and what support–from counseling to art education to sports programs–might be available in the community. Perhaps most importantly, the counselors are there to provide therapeutic counseling, a key tool for children forced to deal with neighborhood violence, parental abuse and grinding levels of poverty.
The program enforces a curfew by making random calls to families each night. Bradley starts spot checking at 9:30 and then often calls back an hour later, making sure her charges weren’t just waiting for her call before heading out the door. She says she’s had kids transfer incoming calls to other numbers, had family members lie for them and had kids take the phone off the hook so she couldn’t get through. Bradley says she will tolerate this behavior once or twice, but if there is any indication the teenager is taking unfair advantage of the program, she reports the behavior to the court–and the boy or girl will likely be kicked out and sent upstate.
Mark credits Gregg and other counselors with inspiring him to study for his general equivalency diploma, which he obtained after taking the test last July. He also got a job as messenger in Manhattan with the help of YAP’s job counselors. He says he liked the work, but after a few months as a foot messenger he was bringing home only $17 a day, too much work for too little money, he says. He quit a few months ago and is now working only sporadically.
Bradley says she’s not worried about Mark, despite the fact that he’s now 18-years-old and facing daunting economic prospects. “Mark is a kid that will stay on track,” she says with confidence. “He doesn’t want to go back, and he’s deter-mined.”
While Mark may do well, it’s inevitable that some teens “go back”–to crime or to prison–after taking part in the program. Such unwanted results are a political danger for YAP and other alternative programs. Influential critics such as Manhattan Family Court Chief Prosecutor Peter Reinharz claim there is no proof that alternative programs reduce crime. Reinharz argues that today’s juvenile justice system has too many such programs, and says that returning violent kids to their neighborhoods–to the same environment where they learned their criminal behavior–is not worth the risk.
“It’s absurd to me,” Reinharz says. “It’s suicidal, it’s self-destructive, to keep these violent people in the community.”
Under New York State law, notably one of the toughest in the nation on teenagers, anyone over age 16 is prosecuted in Supreme Court as an adult, facing the same stiff sentences any adult felon would face. Teens as young as 14 who are charged with violent crimes are prosecuted in Supreme Court as well, although they usually face shorter sentences.
Still, the vast majority of juvenile offenses–ranging from low-level assault and robbery to vandalism–are handled in the Family Court, where proceedings are private, records are sealed and the system’s primary goal is rehabilitation. Reinharz charges that young teens cynically use this system to commit crimes with impunity, and is aggressively lobbying federal and state lawmakers to mandate incarceration at younger ages. He’s also calling for reduced funding for alternative-to-sentencing programs.
New York’s highest ranking politicians are listening. Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver has called for longer minimum sentences for juvenile offenders and sharp increases in sentences for youths caught committing a second felony. And Governor George Pataki is seeking to require the automatic transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds currently held in youth facilities to the far cheaper adult prison system. Even without the latter measure, the state is already transferring an increasing number of older teens to the adult prison system. All of these proposals have been promoted by Reinharz and other conservatives.
As a result, alternative-to-sentencing programs are under political pressure to produce quantifiable results. It’s a tough order. Most programs for juvenile offenders are only a few years old and lack the funding for long-term studies tracking kids after they graduate. The Youth Advocacy Project, for example, has little idea what has become of the hundreds of teens its counselors have worked with over the last seven years.
YAP’s Weissman notes, however, that in last year’s class, only 15 percent of the participating teens were kicked out of the program and sent back into the DFY system. In most cases, she adds, this was not because the teenagers had committed a new crime, but rather because they weren’t respecting the program’s rules.
And there is convincing research that com-pares the long-term re-arrest and re-incarcera-tion rates of juveniles tried and sentenced in adult courts with those prosecuted in the juvenile system. A study to be published later this year by Jeffrey Fagan, director of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, looked at 15 and 16 year olds convicted of robbery in New York and New Jersey. The New Yorkers, tried and sentenced in the adult system, were twice as likely as their New Jersey peers to be re-arrested after their release. Harsher treatment, Fagan concludes, turns teenagers into harsher criminals.
The best New York City can offer in terms of data on the success rates of alternative programs comes from the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), which runs a program similar to YAP called the Court Employment Project (CEP). The CEP program works with about 65 juvenile offenders as well as a much larger number of older teens. According to their data, only 20 percent of the CEP participants were re-arrested on felony charges after one year. Looking two years out, the total was 30 percent. For similar adolescents incarcerated upstate, the two-year re-arrest rate was above 50 percent.
Brenda Coughlin, a CASES research associate, admits the sample is skewed since the organization is picky about the teens it chooses to work with. Like YAP, it avoids working with the most hardcore defendants, instead looking for kids with readily apparent motivation and promise.
But alternative programs could hardly have a worse track record than the Division for Youth. Recent reports, confirmed by City Limits in off-the-record conversations with state officials, note that nearly 75 percent of juvenile offenders held in a DFY facility were re-arrested within 18 months of their release.
For the long-term, Coughlin adds, there is a more important question to research: Who, she asks, is a good risk for these programs? As alternatives to incarceration become increasingly sophisticated, there’s a good chance the programs could safely target higher risk kids, she says. “We don’t have to accept the categories of who’s high-risk and who’s not.”
Mark agrees. As someone who was arrested wielding a gun, he was on the high end of the Youth Advocacy Project’s risk assessment measures. He says without YAP, he would still be robbing people “or worse.”
But his expectations and goals have changed.
“I want to make a decent amount of money, a good salary, and move out of my apartment, get out of my mother’s hair,” he says, smiling. “I want to be happy with myself.”
Pam Frederick is a reporter for the Riverdale Press.