Recidivism Factories

I like to think that if the horse lobby had been more powerful a century ago, Henry Ford could have died a pauper and the United States would be a Third World country. When a society calcifies around its current status quo, it dooms itself.

Oil is certainly one of America’s current “horses and buggys.” Fot those who remember, there was a consciousness of oil’s limits thirty years ago. President Carter turned down the White House thermostat and wore sweaters. Alternative energy was all the buzz. Then came Reagan into our “national malaise,” proclaiming that there was plenty of oil. Upon taking office he immediately worked to create the conditions for the oil glut of the 1980’s. And here we are.

But it’s not so much what we’re calcifying around as the motivation to do so. We see it in littler things in smaller venues than oil in the global marketplace. We see it in youth incarceration and the New York State Senate. According to the New York Times:

The public pays about $500 a night for each of the 25 beds in the Auburn Residential Center — a place for teenagers who have gotten into lower-grade trouble with the law, a junior-varsity jail. For the last two weeks, the beds in Auburn have been empty. And state officials expect them to remain empty, permanently.

But even with no one under the sheets, each bed will continue to cost as much as $200,000 a year, the officials say.

Auburn, near Syracuse, is one of three state facilities for teenagers that are becoming high-priced ghost jails. Brace Residential Center, in Delaware County, with 25 beds, has just two teenagers staying there, watched over by a staff of 24; Great Valley in Cattaraugus County has 10 young people and a staff of 24. Soon, Brace and Great Valley, like Auburn, will no longer have teenagers staying there.

Yet if the State Senate has its way, all three will remain open until at least January 2010.

Huh? Isn’t this the same State Senate that has spent the last umpteen years railing against state spending? Well, it is about jobs, don’t you know.

Nearly all politicians fight to keep jobs in their districts. Prisons, jails and juvenile facilities have been a source of political and economic power to upstate areas that have little other industry. Most of the inmates came from the five boroughs and the metropolitan area.

Yeah, I saw some of those five boroughs kids at a press conference in Albany yesterday. They didn’t look like rural upstaters, unless do-rags are the new cow country fashion statement. But it’s not just about jobs.

New York City has found better, cheaper ways to move teenagers onto safer ground, said Ronald E. Richter, the city’s family services coordinator.

For offenders whose home lives are filled with problems, the city now provides intense programs for the entire family, buttressing the role of adults in the lives of the teenagers. Last year, about 275 teenagers and their families were sent into these programs rather than the state juvenile system.

So instead of sending the teenagers off to state facilities that cost $140,000 to $200,000 a year per person, the city is spending about $17,000 a year, Mr. Richter said. And while the state’s juvenile recidivism rate is 80 percent, the city program had a rate of about 35 percent in its first year, he said.

Progress! It’s about progress. And the ugly status quo is about white grownups minding black and brown kids penned in hundreds of miles from home. And an 80% recidivism rate! What an investment in the economic futures of upstate towns such as Attica, Bedford Hills, Dannemora, Fishkill, West Coxsackie, and many many others!

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