(This story was originally published on May 26th, 2020, by THE CITY.)
Even as New York’s jails population has plummeted after inmate releases to stem the spread of coronavirus, the number of young people in the city’s two secure juvenile detention centers is starting to rise again, top child welfare officials say.
The centers’ population has grown to 81, according to the city Administration for Children’s Services — up from 74 in late March following efforts to free some youth.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of youth coming into detention,” Sara Hemmeter, the deputy commissioner in charge of juvenile justice for the Administration for Children’s Services, told a City Council oversight hearing on jails and juvenile centers on May 19.
“Now, as the courts remain closed, no youth are moving out since the first releases” — when ACS allowed 20 young people to return home in late March, she added.
That left scores more remaining in its two secure facilities, Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn and Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx.
The result: a slow but steady increase in the number of young people detained.
The growing crowd at Crossroads has forced ACS to back off its initial plan to limit Horizon only to COVID-positive youth and a small number of healthy17-year-olds who were facing adult charges, ACS Commissioner David Hansell testified.
“We began to redistribute the population because of an increase in population we were experiencing at Crossroads,” he said.
Yet continued court arraignments, Hemmeter explained, have more teens coming into detention — while court shutdowns have so far denied them the opportunity for hearings where a judge could let them out.
“These youth are left to languish in detention,” the Legal Aid Society objected in written testimony submitted for the online hearing.
Lawyers pointed the finger at Family Court for adjourning juvenile delinquency cases while courts remain on partial lockdown.
“It’s disturbing,” Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes Crossroads, said following the hearing. “Because that means that we have a lot of youth that are being arrested, and they are lingering in the system.”
Health and Safety Eyed
Under pressure from prior youth-services and juvenile-justice commissioners, as well as a lawsuit, New York’s child welfare agency quickly moved to lower the number of young people in juvenile detention in late March as COVID-19 zapped through detention facilities.
By early April, the number of detained youth declined by one-third, following the review of cases by city agencies, lawyers and law enforcement officials, ACS said. This decreased the ranks of youth in the city’s two secure detention centers.
But that number has begun to rebound as more young people arrive in detention — even as the NYPD and city lawyers who serve as juvenile justice prosecutors have steered most kids away.
Jennifer Gilroy Ruiz of the city Law Department testified her agency has worked with police and probation officials to make sure that “nearly 80% of youth initially in [police] custody have been released.”
Judges must now also balance considerations related to the pandemic, such as medical vulnerability, when deciding whether to detain young people, according to the state court system and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
“ACS continues to assess health and safety needs through this evolving and unprecedented public health crisis, while providing services and supports to improve the lives of children and families involved in the juvenile justice system,” Marisa Kaufman, an ACS spokesperson, said in an e-mailed statement.
Over 131 youth have entered secure detention since early April, while 118 were transferred to other facilities or released during the same time period, according to ACS.
Lucian Chalfen, an Office of Court Administration spokesperson, told THE CITY in a statement that courts are only hearing arraignment, bail and emergency applications for youth charged as adults.
“We have never stopped activity for newly arrested youths for even a day during this pandemic,” he said.
But, since trials are on hold, some teens who are still behind bars are left in limbo.
Ampry-Samuel, whose district includes Crossroads, recalled fielding phone calls from a distressed mother of a boy with COVID inside the facility in March.
“The world was shutting down, and she was on the phone with her son, who was sick,” said Ampry-Samuel, who sometimes accompanies families to visit the detention center.
The children and families are going through “mental health issues and emotional issues and trauma because the entire world is going through a traumatic experience,” Ampry-Samuel, chair of the Council’s housing committee, told THE CITY. “And so for me, this is disturbing to see that during this time we are still arresting, locking up our young people.”