EAST NEW YORK — Several hundred juvenile criminals who had been sentenced to time upstate have begun to move to city facilities closer to their families as part of a sweeping overhaul of the juvenile justice system, city officials announced Thursday.
About 60 young people have returned to the city since September under the Close to Home program, which aims to move non-violent juvenile offenders out of state facilities upstate and into city-run facilities within the five boroughs, so that young people can can serve their time closer to home.
The city expects to receive about 300 young offenders by the end of the year under the program, which was approved by the state legislature this spring.
“We know that keeping them close to home lets us do a better job of helping them get their lives back on track,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a press conference at Passages Academy, a school in East New York where many of the kids are expected to enroll.
The school currently serves 73 students: 12 who have recently returned from state facilities, and several dozen who were at risk of being sent upstate because of their trouble with the law.
Jim St. Germain, a former student who grew up in Crown Heights and was incarcerated at the age of 14, said programs like Passages can make a huge difference for teens running out of time to turn their lives around.
“Looking back at it now, it was actually the best thing in my life,” said St. Germain, who is now 23 and preparing to enter law school after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from John Jay College.
St. Germain said that it was during his time at Passages that he fell in love with school and learned he could do more with his life than be a basketball player, rapper or "a hustler on the street."
“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t know where I'd be right now,” he said. “I’d probably be dead or in jail."
Officials said the school, which is one of five of its kind, is nothing like a traditional public school. Some classes have as few as eight students, who get lots of attention from teachers and staff. Students typically live in group homes and are transported back and forth by staffers, who also join them in the classroom, Principal Stephen Wilder said.
“These are some of the most strict classes you’ll ever sit in," St. Germain said.
The state's youth prisons have long been the subject of scorn from both local and federal authorities, with a whopping 81 percent of young men in the system re-arrested within three years of their release.
The facilities also cost the city a pricey $300,000 per child a year, and didn't have accredited high schools, so that students returning back to the city found themselves even further behind.
Bloomberg said the Close to Home program was designed to try to “break that cycle” that leads so many young offenders into dead ends.
“If these kids don't get an education, what’s they’re future?” he asked. “What happens if they get hungry? We all know what happens.”
“The next cycle is they go to Rikers, and the next cycle is they go to the prison system, and the next cycle is they go to a slab in the morgue,” he said.
The effort is part of the larger Young Men’s Initiative — a sweeping program that was launched by the mayor last year to try to improve outcomes for young black and Latino men whose drop-out rates, arrest rates and incarceration rates far out-pace others their age.
So far, officials said, the initiative's programs have reached about 4,000 young men, including more than 500 placed in internships, hundreds placed in job training programs, and more than 1,000 who have participated in father support groups.
The $127 million effort is being funded partially with personal donations from Bloomberg and fellow billionaire George Soros.