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New settlement means juvenile solitary confinement will end in Onondaga County

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News File Photo
The Onondaga County Justice Center.

Juveniles, age 16 and 17, will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement at the Onondaga County Justice Center. A recent lawsuit was settled between the county's sheriff's office and the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six juvenile plaintiffs. The settlement includes the start of a new behavior management system at the justice center. 

NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Molly Kovel said juveniles could spend weeks or months at a time in a place they referred to as the box.

“It’s very dark," Kovel said. "It’s far away. The recreation cages are literally tiny, filthy cages where you would often have an adult on recreation right next to them. Our kids had frequently suffered having adults throw urine and feces at them through the cages when they were on their one hour of rec[reation] a day. It was incredibly dangerous and frightening for them.”

Kovel said young people were sent to these segregated housing units for minor infractions.

“So no more looking people up for being disrespectful or disobeying a minor order," Kovel said. "Now they will be locked in their own cell for a matter of hours, not weeks or months." 

Juveniles will only be locked in their own cells if they are an imminent threat. And there are other changes as well. The justice center will also provide more educational instruction, mental health counseling, and a positive behavior incentive program.

“Now we feel that they really expanded the tools that they have to maintain safety and security at the facility which will really greatly benefit both staff and the inmates there," Kovel said.

And by 2019, the vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds will be taken out of all county jails in New York State when the law raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 goes into full effect.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.