By Kieran K. Meadows
Officials from the city Department of Juvenile Justice said they would have to make tough budget choices, as a result of impending state and city cuts, when they testified Wednesday at a hearing held by the City Council committee that has oversight over the agency.
One of the more controversial moves the department plans to make is to eliminate its discharge planning staff.
Discharge planning’s focus had been helping youth with serious health and mental health needs make the transition home from detention more seamless, by connecting them with community organizations and other support networks.
The agency plans to combine its discharge planning service into its case management system.
The chairwoman of the Committee on Juvenile Justice, Sara M. Gonzalez, asked agency officials to explain how the integration of the two units would benefit youth in the department’s custody.
Nina Aledort, the department’s assistant commissioner for program services, said that many parents get confused when they receive phone calls from too many different people.
“By incorporating the discharge planning responsibilities—none of which will go away—the parent will have a single point of contact,” Aledort said. “A person who knows how the person is doing day-to-day in detention will also be able to work with the young person about how and what they might need when they return to the outside. It’s much more coordinated, really, is how we see it,” she said.
However, the addition of discharge planning responsibilities would place more pressure on case management staff, juvenile justice advocates said.
Charisa Smith, the director of the Juvenile Justice Project of The Correctional Association of New York, said that despite what agency officials said, it didn’t sound as if the case management staff would be able to handle all the responsibilities of discharge planning.
“It takes a special skill set, as well as just certain time commitment, which you know, I don’t think case managers have that kind of time to do discharge planning in addition to what they generally do,” she said. “If you have 15 youth on your caseload and you’re doing discharge planning and case management, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”
In her testimony before the committee, Smith advocated for discharge planning to be maintained.
Councilman Lew Fidler, who sat in on the hearing as the chairman of the Youth Services Committee, said he too was concerned about the changes in discharge planning mainly because of a study the council commissioned last year that found that one third of homeless youth had come in contact with the juvenile justice system shortly before they became homeless.
“In a year when budgets are tight, you have to look at the big picture,” said Councilman Fidler. “By saving this dime, am I going to cost myself a quarter some place else?”
Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Neil Hernandez explained that case management services are provided to all youth in detention and by integrating the two services, “the department is ensuring more youth can take advantage of this critical service,” he said, referring to discharge planning.
He added that discharge planning had actually been an enhancement of services provided by his department that are mandated by the state. While case management of youth in the system is required by the state, discharge planning is not. In fact, the city is reimbursed by the state for case management services because the state Office of Children and Family Services mandates them.
Agency officials said that the elimination of the discharge planning service was part of what was required to meet the mayor’s 7-percent budget cut. They said integrating the services would save approximately $513,000 in 2010, and by eliminating discharge planning, 11 staff positions would be cut.
But Smith, of the Juvenile Justice Project, said that there were better ways for the department to save money. For instance, $14 million could be saved by closing the Spofford Detention Facility (also known as Bridges), which costs $216,000 per year per bed to keep open.
“Most of the youth that are in Spofford right now are not committing serious offenses so they can be supervised in the community very safely,” she said. “And that saves the city money because community alternative programs cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per youth. Contrast that with the $216,000 and the savings are obvious.”
Budget choices are inherently tougher for the Department of Juvenile Justice than at some other agencies because certain services are required—namely, in-house detention services—if youth are being detained.
Another challenge is that it is impossible to predict exactly how many youth will enter the detention system, and therefore how much it will cost, said Kerry Spitzer, an analyst at the Independent Budget Office.
“This is one of those services that by the end of the day, they’ll have to find the dollars somewhere,” said Spitzer. After detention costs and health costs, re-entry support is “probably the first place they’d have to cut without having to cut their core services.”