Pressure Mounts to Stop Trying Minors as Adults

Nearly 800 inmates in local and state prison are under 18. (Photo via El Diario)

Nearly 800 inmates in local and state prisons are under 18. (Photo via El Diario)

For then 16-year-old Joel M. and his best friend, hearing that they received a two-year sentence for a robbery they say they did not commit felt like a bucket of cold water.

The two youths from Washington Heights were accused of armed robbery in July 2012. They say that they did not do it, and they were judged as adults. Facing eight years in jail, they plead guilty to reduce their sentence, and were sent to the Rikers Island correctional facility.

“I wasted a lot of time that I will never get back, but that experience made me grow. I now think about consequences; I think things through before I do them,” said the young man of Dominican origin, who is now on probation.

Joel’s story is sadly familiar in New York. Presently, nearly 800 inmates in local and state prisons are under 18. Although close to a third of all youths between 16 and 17 years old are Hispanic or African American, they represent 72 percent of all arrests and 77 percent of all felonies statewide.

Still, there is hope to end this situation. The coalition of 50 organizations that launched the Raise the Age campaign, is celebrating that – for the first time – a provision to change the laws that try teens as adults has been included in the State Assembly’s budget proposal.

“We cannot allow people younger than 18 years old to become yet another number in the adult penal system,” said Assemblymember for the 22nd District, Michaelle Solages. “Processing these young people as juveniles for all felonies will improve their chances to turn their lives around and will reduce social and financial costs.”

Legislator for the 6th Assembly District Phil Ramos remembered that, during his time as a police officer, he witnessed the high level of recidivism among youths who were processed as adults. “Our youngest offenders need alternatives to incarceration so they can have a second chance,” said Ramos.

The long-awaited judicial reform is backed by the Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Nevertheless, there are signs of conflict in Albany in terms of reaching an agreement on the budget, due on March 31.

After Cuomo’s announcement, state Sen. Thomas W. Libous (R-C-I – Binghamton) said in a radio interview that he would be in favor of the proposal, but pointed out that the topic would be a sensitive one among legislators because of the violent nature of some of the crimes committed by juveniles.

Brooklyn Sen. Martin Golden, a Republican and former NYPD officer, was even more skeptical. “Some of the most heinous crimes are committed by kids who are 16 and 17,” said Golden to the Daily News.

The reform would start by changing jurisdiction from criminal to family court, immediately releasing and transferring juvenile delinquents to rehabilitation centers, and raising the minimum age for incarceration to 18 years old beginning in 2018.

“Be the change you seek”

When he got out of prison, Joel joined the Common-Unity program created by Exodus Transitional Community, which helps at-risk youths between 16 and 25 years old who are in trouble with the law.

Having received a great deal of guidance, Joel said that he is happy there. He enrolled in community college and, three months later, received his GED. He is now focusing on getting a job in construction or in music, but he is aware that two years in jail and a criminal record tarnish his resume.

Helping youths overcome the difficult integration process is Raúl Burgos’ objective. He is an Exodus counselor leading by example: He was a juvenile delinquent too, and spent 20 years in prison for his involvement with a gang.

“We help by setting an example. The mentors have a school, they are well trained, and some of us have been in jail ourselves. We work to make them understand that a life in crime is wrong. We focus on the positive things that lie ahead; they already know the negative ones,” said Burgos.

As a prerequisite, youths who join Exodus’ Harlem-based ARCHES program must be on probation. The program serves a mostly African-American and Hispanic population of disoriented youths who have gone out in the street to mug people, take their schoolmates’ phones or stolen credit cards to make some money.

Another reintegration group is Strong Youth, founded and directed by Sergio Argueta, whose university program is part of the Adolescent Diversion Program (ADP) pilot plan currently operating in nine New York counties. The ADP initiative, set in motion in 2012 by Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman, aims to find an appropriate approach to age within the legal confines of the criminal court.

One Comment

  1. I spent 14 months in Rikers fighting a white collar case I ultimately had to plea bargain. My experience during that period was that 19 year old inmates had already their “bodies” since they were 16. Only that this time they just “got caught” with another one. And they compete with others their age as to how many “bodies” each one had since their early teens.
    The law should not be “one size fits all”. Judges must have the discretionary decision making ability to sort out the cases by their severity.
    “Intelligence” inside the jail would produce unbelievable results and help judges make good decisions at sentencing.

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