Advocates Hope To Keep Young People Out Of Adult Court
Each year in New York, more than 45,000 16-and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court. If convicted, these juveniles are housed in adult jails and prisons, which advocates and some in state government want to change.
New York is one of only two states that still prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults. North Carolina is the other. Alicia, who didn’t want her last name used, is one of thousands of mothers across New York with a child who was incarcerated before his or her 18th birthday. Her son is 21 and serving a 4-12 year sentence in state prison for a first time felony arson charge. He started a fire in an abandoned building shortly after turning 17. No one was hurt in the incident. Alicia’s son suffered from depression and said he was hearing voices prior to his arrest. Alicia asked to keep her son’s name out of the story.
"We had no experience with the criminal system, we had no idea what to do, so we scrambled to find an attorney very quickly, but within two hours before we hired an attorney, they had a written confession out of him," Alicia says. "And he was very cooperative because that was the way he was raised, you know, to respect authority and to cooperate, and because they told him that he would feel better if he told them everything, that happened. And he didn’t realize that this would be all used against him later. And it was."
Alicia’s son agreed to a plea deal in 2010 in exchange for giving up his youthful offender status and right to appeal. Youthful offender status affords juveniles the ability to keep their cases closed to the public and their adult criminal records from being released. Like many juveniles housed with adults in prison, Alicia’s son was an easy target.
"There was a much older inmate who befriended him and saw an opportunity, I think, to take advantage of him" says Alicia. "Which he did over a period of months: he was sexually assaulted."
Alicia’s son is one of thousands of youths housed in an adult prison for a non-violent offense. According to the public awareness campaign Raise the Age New York, youth housed in adult prisons are 50 percent more likely to face an armed attack from another incarcerated person and five times more likely to be sexually abused. Youth in adult jails are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities.
Angelo Pinto is the campaign manager for the New York Correctional Association’s Juvenile Justice Project. He oversees the Correctional Association’s campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York. As a former legal coordinator on Rikers Island, Pinto says he has firsthand knowledge of the conditions juveniles face in adult prison.
"Young people who spend time in adult jails and prisons are subject to anything adults are. Anything from solitary confinement, which is 23-hour lockdowns. Being fed and getting educational materials through a hole in the door. Additionally, in Long Island, there’s a young woman we worked with who was shackled while giving birth."
According to the Correctional Association, more than 45,000 16-and 17-year-olds are arrested as adults in New York State each year. But, Pinto says, don’t be misled by the high number.
"Most of those 16-and 17-year-olds are committing misdemeanors, non-violent misdemeanors. There are a variety of challenges when looking at these issues with young people being treated as adults, and if you don’t take a critical look at it and the surrounding circumstances, it may look like there are a bunch of young people running wild committing crime and not a system that may be over-incarcerating, over-policing, and over-criminalizing large amounts of young people for behavior that at one point was not criminalized."
New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Democrat from the 25th district in Brooklyn, is a sponsor of a bill that would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.
"The one that I am specifically sponsoring would allow for young people up to the age of 18 to be tried as youthful offenders for crimes," says Montgomery.
"One of the differences in this version is that there would be a juvenile defender special department in adult court and these youngsters would be tried in family court depending on the severity of the crime."
Another Senate bill is drafted by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. The difference in the two bills is Judge Lippman’s would create a new youth division of the State Supreme Court -- instead of sending the cases to family court. Lippman says although there is recognition of the need for the bill in the Senate, there is debate on how far the legislation should go.
"I don’t think there’s been any formal opposition. I think it’s fair to say that some of the advocates say that our bill doesn’t go far enough and that it should go to family court and should include nonviolent crimes as well as violent."
Under both Senate bills, youths aged 16 or 17 who commit serious violent crimes may still end up in adult prisons. Pinto, of the New York State Correctional Association, says that is something he is working to fix.
"My position and the position of the correctional association is that no 16-or-17 year-olds are prosecuted as adults, even the 16-and 17-year-olds who commit violent offenses. And part of the reason is because we know there is a tremendous amount of research even if you incarcerate a young person who commits a violent offense in an adult jail or prison they will come out and recidivate with another violent crime. We want to address the violence, not put them in a system that will increase their propensity for violence."
Cynthia Preiser is an assistant public defender for Albany County. She represents clients 16 and up in the county’s criminal court. She says the new legislation should exist for non-violent instances such as these.
" I recently had a case where three young kids went into a house and sprayed graffiti on the walls. Two of the kids were under 16 and went to family court and were dealt with there. The third went to county court had to plea to a felony and will have to deal with the felony consequences of his act."
The two kids sent to family court will have their cases closed and won’t have an adult criminal record. The 16-year-old could face up to four years in state prison, and his vandalism offense will stay on his adult criminal record, jeopardizing his ability to attend college or get a job. Senator Montgomery says criminal records are debilitating for young people.
"We lose the opportunity to create a different trajectory for their lives and we can never expect for them to be successful. They get on this pipeline into the criminal justice system, into prison."
Chief Judge Lippman agrees.
"Kids are kids and they do silly things that sometimes we tear our hair out about, but that doesn’t mean we should treat them as adult criminals and ruin their lives before they can become a part of the American dream."
According to Raise the Age New York, around 80 percent of young people released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes. For cases that don’t involve serious violent crime, Montgomery’s bill would send youths under 18 to family court. In handling these cases, family court is required to consider the needs and best interests of the youth. Family court can provide services such as academic and vocational programming, mental health services, and substance abuse programs. Pinto says family court along with community-based alternatives are better ways of dealing with young offenders.
"And it’s our hope that there will be an increased investment in these programs. Not only because they have a great impact on the lives of young people but also because they save a lot of money in the long run."
A version of either Senate bill is expected to pass the next legislative session in January. There’s another bill pending in the Assembly sponsored by Joe Lentol, a Democrat from the 50th district in Brooklyn. For cases such as Alicia’s son’s, the focus would be on rehabilitation and not on prison time.
"He knew he wanted to go somewhere to college and even his counselors told him he wouldn’t have any trouble getting into any college he wanted to because he did very well; he was a straight A student taking AP classes," says Alicia, talking about her son.
"So he was definitely college bound and now he thinks about that, that he should be in college instead of prison right now. But it’s not the way it turned out."
Mike Allinger is a junior at Syracuse University. He studies Broadcast Journalism at the Newhouse School. WAMC would like to disclose that Mike’s mother is an Albany County Family Court Judge.