Today, right here in New York City and State, one of the greatest challenges we face is reforming a Juvenile Justice system that incarcerates more than 1,600 children - the overwhelming majority of color and from under-privileged families - in facilities, often far away from their homes, at a cost of $240,000 per child per year. At the same time, funds that could keep these children in alternative education programs are being slashed. This is a social injustice that members of the New York Society for Ethical Culture are addressing. On April 24, 2010, we hosted a conference of concerned organizations and individuals demanding immediate changes in the government agencies charged with caring for children in trouble. Out of this conference was created the Justice for Juveniles Coalition (see sidebar for members). A follow-up conference was held at the Society on July 21, 2010 to promote an activist agenda that incorporates recommendations made by Governor David Paterson’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice, issued in December 2009. The coalition will continue meeting periodically, offering opportunities for education, action and advocacy.
Supporters of reform in the juvenile justice system rejoiced on May 17 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 6 to 3 decision, that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than murder. Deeming such punishment “cruel and unusual,” the court gave hope to 129 people in 37 states serving life terms without parole for non-homicide crimes committed when they were under 18 years of age. Much more remains to be done in every state to address the educational, physical and psychological needs of children in trouble. New York State is harming its youth, wasting financial and human resources, and endangering its public by taking a punitive approach. Incarceration must be the last resort, and alternatives already in place in local communities must be supported.
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