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Federal Monitor to Abandon Violence-Plagued Horizon Juvenile Center

The Horizon Juvenile Center in the South Bronx. Photo: Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

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Sometime this fall, the last of the remaining teens detained under the watch of city Department of Correction officers at Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx will turn 18.

Their birthday gift, if they haven’t been released first: a move to adult jail on Rikers Island.

When their stay at Horizon ends, so will the oversight by a federal monitor who has exposed serious violence in the juvenile facility and city jails, following a major civil rights case filed on behalf of youth in 2015 by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The Nunez monitor, named for the plaintiff in that class action suit, has issued eight reports so far — the most recent showing use of force by correction officers against young Horizon detainees at rates that exceed those on Rikers Island.

“The Facility’s high rates of violence and [use of force] are of great concern to the Monitoring Team,” wrote monitor Steve Martin in October.

‘Who’s Going to Fill Gap?’

The Nunez case targets the Department of Correction, which continued to guard 16- and 17-year-olds after they moved from adult jails into juvenile facilities under the state’s 2018 “Raise the Age” law.

But this past December, the city Administration for Children’s Services took over high-security Horizon, which can hold 106 youths. At least 11 additional young people have already moved in from ACS’ Crossroads juvenile facility in Brooklyn, according to the agency.

The Department of Correction, now mostly monitoring facility security, is readying to move out entirely.

Once the correction officers depart, the Nunez agreement will no longer apply and Martin will have no oversight power over Horizon, according to the city Law Department.

Nor will the city Board of Correction, which proactively oversees jails, including Horizon.
Raise the Age leaves that power with the state Commission on Corrections and Office of Children and Family Services. ACS said that investigators with the state Justice Center are also able to look into allegations of abuse.

Meanwhile, the City Council Committee on Juvenile Justice dissolved last year when the Council stripped its chairperson, Councilmember Andy King (D-The Bronx), of the role over misconduct allegations.

The Committee on the Justice System, chaired by City Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens), has added juvenile justice to its agenda, in addition to the courts and jails.

“There was a layer of scrutiny — layers of scrutiny — that won’t exist anymore,” said Lancman. “And who’s going to fill that gap?”

Oversight Remains ‘Necessary’

The Council is considering at least one measure to help compensate.

Councilmember Rafael Salamanca (D-The Bronx) has introduced a bill that would require ACS to step up its statistical reporting to the Council.

The agency would have to provide monthly instead of annual reports — and disclose facility-by-facility details about admissions, detainees’ charges, race, gender, ages, home zip codes and more.

Rory Lancman
Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens) attends a meeting at City Hall, Jan. 24, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Testifying before Lancman’s committee in December, ACS Associate Commissioner Sarah Hemmeter objected, saying that monthly reporting would be “incredibly onerous.”

“ACS is committed to maximum transparency with the Council and the public about our juvenile justice programs,” she said.

While supportive of the bill, some youth advocates who testified at the same hearing on Raise the Age stressed that juvenile detention still needs a watchdog.

“Reporting is a step towards accountability, but additional oversight remains necessary,” said Brenda Zubay, a social work supervisor at Brooklyn Defender Services.

Small Price to Pay

Others contend getting correction officers out of youth detention centers is worth the price.

“Moving the Department of Correction out of those facilities greatly outweighs the oversight role that those two institutions [the federal monitor and the Board of Correction] were serving,” Julia Davis, director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare at the Children’s Defense Fund, told THE CITY.

To replace the correction officers, ACS has hired, trained and phased in more than 180 “youth development specialists” so far for Horizon.

The most recent Nunez Monitor report condemned correction officers’ “lack of skill in developing effective relationships and constructive rapport with youth, their lack of situational awareness, and their tendency to either over- or under-react to escalating tensions.”

Martin said all of those issues “contribute to the high rate of violence.”

He found that Horizon guards used force 440 times between October 2018 and June of 2019 — a period when the facility held no more than 70 young people.

An Eye Inward

Lancman talks of big juvenile justice ambitions for his committee. He said he intends to take on new issues that include judges’ use of discretion when deciding which children get sent to Family Court and which are sent in to the adult system.

He also plans to take a closer look at the Close to Home program, which houses juvenile delinquents in the city instead of upstate facilities.

“Not that that we would ever cease our oversight of Horizon,” said Lancman, “but there are other parts of the juvenile justice and that really require attention that weren’t getting that attention even when one committee had sole jurisdiction.”

After the 2012 launch of Close to Home, then-ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter created an independent juvenile justice oversight board to keep tabs on his agency.

His successor, Gladys Carrion, decommissioned the board, which only met once.

Richter told THE CITY he still worries about what happens without a forum to hear and address concerns.

“That’s part of what the Juvenile Justice Oversight board was supposed to do. You would like to see community, parents, and child’s voices,” said Richter, who now heads the JCCA foster care agency in Brooklyn.

“The question is, ‘Are children and staff going to be safe, and are our children going to be in a beneficial environment so they can progress?’” he said.

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