Dr. Timothy F. Lisante Prepares for Changes to Juvenile Justice System
The timing could not be better for Dr. Timothy F. Lasante, former principal of The East River Academy for incarcerated youth on Rikers Island, and newly appointed director of the city’s reorganized education initiative for children in the juvenile justice system. Dr. Lasante, with 35 years in the public schools, has degrees in special education, with a focus on alternative education, including oversight for GED preparation, career and technical curricula and programs particularly tailored for those in correctional facilities.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had just testified before the State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee and the State Senate’s Committee on Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget and Reform plan. What the mayor said was crucial for the city and for Lasante’s new role as Superintendent of District 79 Alternative Schools and Programs in devising and implementing education plans for youth at risk.
At his testimony, the mayor laid out for Albany a new administrative structure that would move juvenile justice responsibilities that hitherto relied on expensive, underused and ineffective state lock-ups — such as the now-closed and notorious Spofford [Bridges] Juvenile Detention center in the Bronx — to the city.
The rate of recidivism is substantially higher for youth than for adults, the mayor noted, and the financial outlay outrageous: “keeping a youngster at a limited-secure state facility, the most common type, costs — listen to this — $270,000 per year, per kid.” Transferring planning and accountability for housing, counseling and educating those kids (those awaiting court hearings and those already adjudicated) to city jurisdictions makes sense, and acting on the new plans immediately, which legislation will effect this September, makes excellent sense, Lasante adds.
The new administrative and funding structure builds on the merger in 2010 of the city’s Department of Youth and Family Justice and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which integrated juvenile justice and welfare programs, moving programs for both secure and non-secure detention services under one umbrella, and cutting delays in getting children into schooling, even as they wait for adjudication of their cases.
The goal, of course, remains what it was: to keep kids from going back to jail (the perpetual revolving door), to help them get their lives on track and to improve public safety in the process. The challenge, of course, is how to manage the diversity of problems. So many who are awaiting court disposition have an inadequate or no family structure, and at the average age of 15 are already way behind grade level.
The revised education component will involve Passages Academy, a network of eight single-sex secure detention facilities located in the Bronx (for youth in the Bronx and Manhattan) and Brooklyn (for youth in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island). Central to curricular revision will be the introduction of six-week modular courses that will enable those in the juvenile justice pipeline to earn credit that will appear on their transcripts that typically reflect only semester work. Lasante will have full authority in approving and implementing all education plans for these children, including reviewing proposals from various community organizations that would be involved in housing on-site schooling facilities, along with therapy programs. Plans also provide for an immediate return of released kids to their schools. The idea is to have a continuum of study and an integration of behavioral and educational services.
Lasante is particularly pleased that he will have jurisdiction over professional development, which was the subject of his doctoral thesis. Unlike some European countries, The United States has no pre-service certification programs for those teaching in juvenile justice systems. What to do with a cohort of kids with a wide range of skills — some years behind in literacy, others ready to go to college? And middle school students (“the toughest,” Lasante says), where the differences between grades 7 and 9 are the most divergent? He is eager to see what might be adapted from existing best practices that turn on group, rather than one-on-one arrangements. He has also been looking at foster-care housing models whereby such “crossover kids” would live for a year with an approved family — parents, children, maybe even a dog. At the least, and for sure, Dr. Lasante is barking up the right tree. #