A sense of hopelessness overwhelmed many of New York City's juvenile detention centers in the 1970s and early 1980s. The youth sentenced to these facilities were stuck in a temporary holding pattern until a judge decided the fate of the child: either back into the community or into a state placement. The emphasis within the detention centers focused on the actual physical custody of risky youth. Although these children posed a risk, they also comprised one of the most at-risk populations within the city. However, service provision to address the specific needs of the children occurred only once the youth were released from the detention center.
In 1983, the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) decided to transform the "dead time" of detention into an opportunity for intervention, linking the youth with institutes of socialization. DJJ made a concerted effort to span the gap between the criminal justice and child welfare fields, altering the organization of the entire agency. The effort transformed detention centers from prisons for kids into rehabilitation centers that focused on the individual needs of each child. DJJ was faced with the challenge of the huge variation within the target population in detention centers. This issue was resolved by developing a scheme in which the youth are differentiated along several dimensions, and the provided services are appropriately separated and integrated. As a result, children of similar behavioral, offense and physical characteristics are both housed and educated together.
The personalized attention continues after release with the Aftercare program, which provides a continuum of case management following release from a detention center that is specific to the needs of each child and family. The Aftercare program links individualized information and services to families, schools and social welfare agencies through educational specialists and social workers. A wide range of professionals work together on each case so that specific demands of all youth are adequately met.
DJJ individualized the juvenile corrections process without dramatically raising the cost of care by changing the management of the agency. The administration realized that DJJ employees had an overwhelming passion and commitment for helping troubled children. Management quickly tapped into this latent energy and provided new motivation for the staff through recruitment and promotion within the agency. According to site reporter Jonathon Brock, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington Seattle, not only are professionals within DJJ working together more cooperatively, but they are also collaborating with other agencies across the city.
This initiative has effectively identified a formerly overlooked opportunity to reach out to the city's at-risk youth. Outcome measures indicate that DJJ's innovative approach has impacted the direction of incarcerated youth. Most notably, the percent of Aftercare clients enrolled in school rose to 88 percent in Fiscal Year 1985, from 48 percent in Fiscal Year 1983. At Spofford, the largest institute in the city, education time for clients rose from three hours per day to five and a half hours per day. These successes are a direct result of the DJJ's collaborative approach to identifying and working with at-risk youth as early as possible within the corrections process while simultaneously addressing the specific demands of each individual child.