Four blocks from the East River and a stone's throw from the Bruckner Expressway is New York City's Bridges Detention Center, where city youth who've entered the juvenile justice system are held prior to hearings and adjudications.

But almost no one calls it Bridges. They call it Spofford.

Officially, Spofford was closed in 1989. But its notoriety as a site for escapes, abuse and community opposition lives on. The city has long promised to close Bridges/Spofford. But a Brooklyn facility slated to receive Bridges' population has a persistent problem with mold. Until the mold is eradicated and the facility renovated, youth will continue to be held at Bridges.

Bridges is part of a youth detention network over which Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seeking more control. A month ago, the mayor challenged incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to give the city control over facilities that are used to house New York City children in the juvenile justice system.

With empty beds at more than half of the state's facilities, and labor laws that require year-long notification prior to closing those detention centers, the mayor asserts that millions could be saved if the city took over from the state. The mayor also argues that the city can develop alternatives to detention and that city youth and their families fare better when kids are placed close to home.

The mayor's proposal, the subject of a City Council hearing today, might solve some of the problems the state system faces. But it raises a new set of questions. Moneys saved by the city takeover would not be reinvested in youth services or juvenile justice. Decisions that affect the city's neediest youth and most fragile families are slated to be made without community input and participation.

The mayor's proposal also raises questions about the detention facilities currently sited in New York City, but run by the state, like Bridges. All of those facilities are well under capacity. As of December 13, a group home for young mothers in Staten Island had one resident. Other sites in Staten Island and Queens are less than half full. And one facility in Brooklyn, designed to serve 25 young people, houses a single girl.

A system and its changes

Young people detained in the juvenile justice system are charged with offenses that can range from truancy to assault, robbery and gang violence. Children as young as seven can be detained, but most are young teens, and half are 15 years old—after which, in New York (alone, but for North Carolina, among the 50 states) a youth can be charged as an adult.

On average, youth in detention remain there for about 28 days, until their case can be heard and a disposition made: return to the community, with or without prescribed support services, or remand to a state or private facility.

Last January, a merger of the city's juvenile justice department, which operates state detention facilities in the five boroughs, and the Administration for Children's Services was announced, designed to improve outcomes, streamline communication and better support the hundreds of children who are part of both realms: Up to two-thirds of youth detained in the juvenile justice system have had prior contact with ACS.

Since 2005, the average daily number of youth in state facilities has dropped significantly, from a high of 870 to 534, in 2009, consistent with general downward trends in crime, adult and youth, in New York City.

The racial disparities that pervade New York's correctional facilities, adult and juvenile sites inclusive, persist: Executive Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice at NYC's Administration for Children's Services, has called the overrepresentation of children of color an issue of national concern. "In New York City, black children are almost 48 times more likely than white children to be placed in a state facility," Busching testified before the City Council in October.

And despite the lower headcount, the system's costs continue to mount. The city, which splits the cost for city youth in state facilities 50-50 with the state, paid nearly $62 million in 2010—more than it paid in 2000, when more kids were incarcerated or in detention.

Indeed, even when state facility populations contract, state fees persist, because rates are based on prior occupancy statistics. Caring for children in detention, no matter the security level, costs a great deal of money: A year in a secure facility costs, on average, $228,000 per child; the cost rises in limited-secure facilities ($272,000) and in group homes ($346,000). Compare that to family foster care ($123,000) and evening-reporting centers ($112,000), where youth live with their families or in foster care but are obliged to check in nightly.   

And even when a facility closes, the costs continue, because the 2,134 staff in detention facilities statewide are contractually entitled to salary and benefits for a full year after a facility's closure is announced. Even after a Department of Justice investigation of four youth facilities led to the closure of Tryon Boys secure facility, many of the former Tryon Boys staffers were transferred to Tryon Girls—intended to house 30 girls, now sheltering seven.

The mayor's plan

The Bloomberg administration has articulated its main goals for juvenile justice reform: To enact legislation that would permit speedier closure of idle facilities (and to transfer their operation to localities, specifically New York City); an executive order from the Governor immediately granting cities and towns responsibility for detaining their local youth and the development of a rate structure to fund local efforts.

Mayoral control of juvenile justice facilities for city youth would address high repeat-offender rates, the city says, by developing alternatives to incarceration based on "best practices" and "national models" (specifics are not part of the plan so far). Placing children closer to home—where families can visit easily, and where young people can more readily return to the community and school—is a strategy that advocates and juvenile-justice experts universally endorse.

Of particular concern to the city is that young people placed in upstate juvenile facilities are often mandated to attend classes during their detention, but because the State Education Department has not accredited upstate-facility schools, the classes taken in detention don't count toward their high-school graduation when they return home and re-enter school. Between 30 and 60 percent of youth in the criminal justice system have learning disabilities and/or mental health challenges.

City juvenile facilities offer academics via the Department of Education's Passages Academy. Although outcomes remain mixed, and many youth released from detention do not return to school or complete their high school diploma, the programs are at least accredited.

By next month, the mayor's office plans to have draft legislation under consideration in Albany. By April, the city expects to finalize its "plan for non-residential and residential programming design," according to the roadmap.

In July, according to the mayor's roadmap, all non-secure placements will be the city's charge. Next January, the city will open new detention facilities—their number, location, size, and purpose all to be determined.

In his state of the state address, delivered two weeks after the mayor spelled out his juvenile justice plan, Cuomo voiced strong support for the mayor's plan, saying that empty juvenile facilities in upstate New York amounted to a make-work situation for local unions. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," the governor said.

It's not clear that when it comes down to the details, Cuomo will support Bloomberg's approach fully. But if the mayor's plan is enacted, by July 2012, the city will take over all youth placements, secure and non-secure alike, and potentially realize millions in savings—although an exact dollar figure has yet to be specified.

Questions about means—and ends

The mayor's push to oversee the city's juvenile justice system mirrors his drive in 2002 for mayoral control of the city's schools.

Then as now, the system in question poorly served its youthful charges, was characterized by delicate dynamics of race and class, had a history of scandal and controversy and involved a powerful union. And as was the case with schools, the mayor's juvenile justice plan raises questions about oversight, the role of private sector players and whether the communities most affected by the policy changes will have a voice in shaping them.

No one, save perhaps the upstate communities where facilities are sited, supports maintaining the status quo: Juvenile justice facilities are overstaffed, and the costs of protracted closure are particularly sharp in a time of economic crisis.

But advocates say that the mayor's juvenile justice reform plan will not include community voices in decisions about facilities, programs and alternatives to incarceration. The mayor's roadmap explicitly calls for the involvement of stakeholders from city government, academia and the philanthropic community to participate in planning facility locations, capacity and purpose. But there is no clear seat at the mayor's table for advocates, families and children who have experience with the system, community-based organizations and nonprofits or for community residents to participate in decisions on where programs, facilities and detention centers will be created.

"There is no apparent mechanism for ongoing community engagement in the process," says Gabrielle Prisco, Director of the Correctional Association of New York's Juvenile Justice Project. "Why should we believe that if the mayor gets control of the Juvenile Justice system, he's going to be responsive to the community?"

ACS's Busching, however, says the Juvenile Justice Initiative that he oversees is in near-constant conversation with advocates and community organizations.

Advocates' concerns are about more than the process. Prisco is upset that the roadmap does not make an explicit goal of lowering the number of children in custody.

Neither the mayor or the governor have made clear commitments to redirecting the funds potentially saved by the city's plan to youth-oriented services, like foster care, other child welfare programs or alternatives to incarceration. Moneys saved will be applied at the administration's discretion, according to Bloomberg spokesperson Jason Post: "We have a multi-billion dollar budget gap. The money would be used to avoid other cuts to services."

And the roadmap's continued reliance on private residential facilities— which house about 60 percent of the total number of youth placed outside their home statewide—troubles some. In contrast to the 50-50 split with the state for the bill from public detention facilities, the city pays nearly the entire cost of the private placement, to the tune of a per-diem rate of roughly $270 per child, or over $64 million a year.

What's more, advocates say, the private providers operate without robust public accountability for their operations. Says Prisco: "This is a huge investment, with little oversight, no transparency, and no accountability."

New ideas, old suspicions

Some critics worry that if Bloomberg succeeds in getting Albany to back his juvenile justice plan, and the city brings the juvenile offenders currently housed upstate back to facilities in the five boroughs, that troubled facilities like Bridges (the former Spofford) will get a new and undeserved lease on life. More than half of the youth detained there are released within 10 days, but up to a year’s detention is permitted before a child appears in court.

"If the city does get control of the placement and incarceration of young people, Spofford is where they'll put them," said Robert Gangi, head of the New York Correctional Association, voicing a concern that the city will simply swap in its own juvenile-justice facility in the former state building.   

The city denies this. "We have no immediate plans for it," Busching says. "The idea is to close it down and then take it out of service." Bridges, he says, will be closed for good by April 1 of this year.