Hunts Point juvenile jail is in the crosshairs

Photo by Joe Hirsch

The Bridges Juvenile Justice Center, which has stood at the corner of Spofford and Tiffany since 1957, is under mounting pressure to close.

Advocates renew push to close Spofford

By Sydney Cespedes

When he was 15, Darryl Briggs ran away from home. Picked up by police, he missed a court date and was sentenced to two months in detention.

Now 19, Briggs is the youth program coordinator for the advocacy organization For a Better Bronx, and he is working to close the notorious juvenile jail where he spent the first week of his sentence, Bridges Juvenile Justice Center, more commonly known by its old name—Spofford.

The effort to close the facility on Spofford Avenue and Tiffany Street in Hunts Point embraces advocates, academics and public officials, who say that locking young people up is expensive and counterproductive, and that funds would be better spent on education and rehabilitation.

In 2008, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum called closing Spofford a key to reform, saying it would free funds to be spent on “alternatives to detention programs.”

A year later, a Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice appointed by Gov. David Paterson concluded that the junvenile detention system had failed either to protect the public or to rehabilitate its charges.

For Briggs, the issue is personal.

He recalls how in Spofford he had to “shower with other kids,” and how “you didn’t really feel clean.”

After finishing his stint at Spofford and Horizon, another detention center, he tried to return to high school. School officials told him that without guidance and support he couldn’t come back. They advised him to get a GED.

Shortly after, Briggs was arrested again, this time for burglary and assault.

Briggs’ story reflects a decision New York State made three decades ago. At the height of the crack epidemic, the state joined a national trend and began to imprison more juveniles, while scaling back programs in the detention centers that emphasized rehabilitation.

Since then thousands of young people have spent time in detention. More than 5,000 were behind bars in New York City in 2007, the last year for which figures are available.

Like Briggs, many of them are likely to be back behind bars, according to the Governor’s task force.

After holding a series of round-table discussions with young people in neighborhoods known for gang activity, including one in Mott Haven, the Public Advocate said, “One thing some gang members told us is that their gang affiliation actually began in juvenile detention.” Closing Spofford, would save $14 million, she said.

The governor’s task force found that New York State spends an average of $210,000 a year to detain each juvenile; in January 2008, the New York City Independent Budget Office pegged the total cost of detention centers in the city at $84.1 million.

The Close Spofford Campaign sponsored by the Juvenile Justice Project, an advocacy coalition, has made savings to taxpayers a key component of its efforts. It sees an opportunity in the approaching city budget negotiations at a time when government at every level is strapped for cash.

In Spofford’s place, the Juvenile Justice Project wants to see an expansion of programs that offer an alternative to locking young people up. It points to BronxConnect, a program that allows youths to live at home and continue school uninterrupted, as an example.

Depending on their sentence, the young offenders have to report to the program two to four afternoons a week, for up to 18 months. BronxConnect, created by the Urban Youth Alliance, a Christian organization, provides counseling and tutoring and claims a 75 percent success rate in keeping the young people it has worked with from returning to the system.

The Juvenile Justice Project sees hope in the city’s decision in February to merge the Department of Juvenile Justice with the Administration for Children’s Services. At a City Council hearing, John B. Mattingly, commissioner of children’s services, described the merger as a natural step towards improving the juvenile justice system by moving away from failed practices.

“Research overwhelmingly shows that reliance on the use of punishment, scare-tactics and holding a young person away from his family and community for extended periods of time in large facilities does not produce results,” Mattingly told the council members.

At a budget hearing on March 9, the city proposed to remove about $5 million from the secure-detention budget while increasing alternative to detention program funding to about $1.8 million. For the first time, the Department of Juvenile Justice explicitly said Spofford would be closed–eventually.

Not good enough, say advocates, who recall the same promise more than 10 years ago. “We want a timeline. We want to be at the table when they are deciding this,” said DeAvery Irons, acting director of the Juvenile Justice Project.

Sporting a plain white t-shit, jeans, and sneakers, Darryl Briggs calmly reflects that but for a stroke of luck he’d still have a year to go in an upstate prison. His public defender got him admitted to a community-based program with Good Shepherd Services. After witnessing the progress he made in the program, the prosecutor agreed not to seek a prison sentence.

Until then, he said, “I thought: I’ll be 20 years old when I come out and nothing to show for it.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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