Charter-style Juvenile Justice?

02/08/2011 11:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Public sector unions are at the heart of debates about fixing state-level fiscal crises. The unions, seen to be intransigent and uncooperative, have become convenient targets for lawmakers interested in cutting government "waste." Yet the proposed cuts raise questions across sectors about the efficacy and ethics of a shift to private sector employment.

In New York, Governor Cuomo is expected to lay off up to 15,000 workers from the state's two largest public sector unions, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF). Cuomo also plans to downsize a number of the state's prisons and juvenile facilities. Workers in the juvenile facilities are represented by CSEA and PEF. The majority of these facilities are in rural parts of the state, whose economies have been reliant on government jobs since the decline of the manufacturing industries. Despite research that suggests that building prisons in rural areas in New York has not actually stimulated job growth and per capita income, prisons remain one of the most powerful symbolic institutions of rural employment in the country. Cuomo touched on the significance of these jobs in his State of the State address, noting that "an incarceration program is not an employment program." Cuomo's father, Governor Mario Cuomo, initiated one of the largest prison-building booms in the state's history; Andrew Cuomo is now capitalizing on public concerns about the cost-effectiveness of incarceration and antipathy toward unions to make cuts which would have been unimaginable during his father's tenure.

Lawmakers cite the inability of the State to fire union members as one of the key reasons for the failures of New York's educational and juvenile justice systems. Brutal, racist, and incompetent teachers and juvenile facility staff are perceived to be the downfall of these systems. Yet, as education scholar Diane Ravitch has noted, "teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens." Ravitch's point may have relevance in the juvenile justice context: should staff bear the sole responsibility for the cycles of imprisonment that so many young people face?

Closer scrutiny of the front end of the state's juvenile justice system might suggest otherwise. Young African-Americans are almost five times more likely to end up in secure residential facilities than their white counterparts. Those young people who do enter the system come from just a handful of impoverished neighborhoods in New York City which are subject to intense scrutiny by police and child welfare authorities. Many of the young people who end up in juvenile facilities in the state have already been through a series of other institutions and placements - from psychiatric hospitals to group homes. The inability of local authorities to provide the buffering resources and support for these young people and their families surely plays a role in their later enmeshment in the cycle of imprisonment that has made prison a 'modal life event' amongst young African-American men. It is imperative that young people be treated with dignity, fairness and respect while they are incarcerated, but their treatment in confinement is only one piece of a much larger whole.

Non-unionized organizations such as charter schools and not-for-profit residential childcare providers are offered as a solution to the problems of incompetent employees who do wrong by children. Mayor Bloomberg hopes to realign the state's juvenile justice system so that all young people can stay at home rather than be sent upstate. But he also wants not-for-profit agencies to become largely responsible for the care of the young people, thus saving the city millions of dollars and allowing it to avoid the headache of organized labor, just as charter schools have been offered as a panacea to the problem of teachers' unions. Some argue that it is preferable to hire staff who come from the same communities that young people come from, but recent events at Rikers Island in New York City, in which corrections officers are said to have overseen the death of a young person in custody, suggest that we cannot assume such easy solutions. Custodial institutions of any kind are stressful, dehumanizing places which often give rise to brutality.

Past projects of engagement with unions may be instructive: in 1978, New York's Governor Hugh Carey agreed to provide alternative employment in community-based facilities for union members dislocated by the deinstitutionalization of New York's mental health system. While that deinstitutionalization process was imperfect, and may have led to the rise in imprisonment of the mentally ill, the labor solution may be instructive. We have little evidence that privately run facilities are more effective at reducing the recidivism rate for young offenders. Thus, abandoning hope for an effective, publicly operated system of treatment may be premature.

One solution might be to look outside of the juvenile justice and prison systems altogether: Governor Cuomo has recognized the need for economic development in all parts of the state, yet he has cut funding for state universities and community colleges, which arguably offer one possibility for the economic development for rural areas and the opportunity for enrichment for all of the state's residents.

The state cannot ignore the desire by its residents - young and old - to obtain meaningful, sustainable, employment which will allow them to thrive and develop. Shifting to a charter-school style model of juvenile justice programming and gutting state workforces do not provide the answers. We need to do a better job of repairing the pipelines to imprisonment for young people.