Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco’s voice was filled with emotion Tuesday as he accepted what he considered one of his highest honors — being recognized by members of the Youth Re-entry Task Force that he assembled six years ago to help curb juvenile incarceration and crime.
“It’s been a great run for me,” DeMarco said at the jail in Yaphank during the final meeting of the task force under his tenure as sheriff. “I think I’ve accomplished just about everything I wanted to. I couldn’t do it without you. You guys were the driving force for the results that we’ve had.”
DeMarco’s term as sheriff began in 2006 and ends on Dec. 31, after he decided not to seek re-election. He was the guest of honor at the meeting, where he thanked dozens of people — legislators, advocates, social workers, correction officers and deputy sheriffs. Those people have worked on a special tier he created for young people who have committed crimes, who may need extra help to get back on track.
The voluntary program is housed on a special tier in the Riverhead jail where about 10 young men receive life skills training, mentoring, gang prevention education, substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment and educational services including high school equivalency courses.
“They’re our kids and they make mistakes,” said DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. “This program gives them a second chance.”
Since the program launched in September 2011, as many as 412 young offenders have participated, officials said, adding that the overall rate of recidivism is as low as 16 percent three years after completion.
DeMarco has said the program requires no extra tax dollars as it relies on public and private agencies in the county that already provide services to the population. These include BOCES and Stony Brook University in the public sector and Empowerment Cooperative of Long Island, Maureen’s Haven Homeless Outreach and the North Shore Youth Council in the nonprofit sector.
One component of the task force includes providing temporary housing at Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch in Riverhead for teenagers and young adults released from the youth tier at the jail.
On Tuesday, the Town of Babylon and Rep Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) praised DeMarco and the program, presenting a certificate of appreciation, which has been recognized by others for its effectiveness. In both 2013 and 2016, DeMarco’s office received an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties.
And the program received a proclamation signed by all 18 members of the Suffolk legislature in 2014.
“Here you have an individual, an amazing person, that has been able to change the process and create a seed of hope for those that went off in the wrong direction,” said Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who attended along with Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) while other legislators sent representatives for the occasion, including Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Kate Browning (WF-Shirley).
DeMarco said the program and its success is a highlight of his career.
“This is the most important thing I think I’ve done as sheriff,” he said.