Advocates fight for juvenile justice

ROCHESTER — Local and state advocates are getting the word out in support of a proposal included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget to raise to 18 the minimum age for a youth to serve a sentence in an adult prison.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that prosecute as adults youths who are 16 and 17, said Beth Powers, senior juvenile justice policy associate at Children’s Defense Fund of New York. Some of those sentences are for such misdemeanors as shoplifting, explained City Councilwoman Elaine Spaull.

"This is the right thing to do at the right time," added Spaull, who also is executive director of the Center for Youth.

The center hosted a Feb. 17 workshop on the "Raise the Age" proposal. During the workshop, participants were asked to write on three separate sheets on the wall what they were doing at ages 7, 13 and 16. In New York, age 7 is the youngest age a child can be arrested, 13 is the youngest age a youth can be charged as an adult and 16 is the youngest age a youth can serve a sentence in an adult prison, Powers explained.

"We need age-appropriate interventions to have an impact," she added, noting research on brain development and the damage of placing juveniles in adult prisons. "The way we’re doing it now is harmful to kids. And it doesn’t work, so it’s harmful to public safety."

To address the issue, Cuomo created a youth, public safety and justice commission last year to come up with recommendations, said Spaull, who served on the commission. Those recommendations would have juveniles tried for violent misdemeanors and felonies, but upon conviction, they would serve sentences in juvenile centers, and minors charged with nonviolent misdemeanors could have their cases tried in Family Court, Powers explained.

The commission made the following recommendations in its "Summary of Recommendations for Juvenile Justice Reform in New York State, which is available at :

* Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. According to the recommendations, connecting teenagers with appropriate interventions will avoid between 1,500 and 2,400 crime victimizations every five years. Such interventions also will make communities safer and support positive outcomes for young people. The commission supports phasing in the proposed reforms; expanding juvenile jurisdiction to include youths who are 16 in 2017 and 17-year-old youths in 2018.

* Raise the lower age of juvenile jurisdiction to 12, except for rare homicide offenses, which the commission suggests should be raised to 10.

* Expand parental notification practices and use of Office of Court Administration-approved rooms for police questioning of 16- and 17-year-old youths. According to the recommendations, research has shown that adolescents are more likely to waive their right to remain silent and to confess to crimes more quickly than adults during police interrogation. That leads to a risk of unreliable confessions, the report states, which can be eliminated by expanding existing law that requires police to make reasonable efforts to notify a parent of the arrest of a youth age 15 and younger and to only questions such youths in an office-like setting.

Several speakers during the Center for Youth workshop and a Feb. 23 presentation at Asbury Methodist Church said that the parental notification aspect is important because fights in schools have evolved. The minor altercations that many adults recall from their high school days are now labeled as assaults. The Asbury program, "Prison to Pipeline: Alternatives to Incarceration," included comments from Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Shani Curry-Mitchell and Edward Minardo, director of Genesee Justice.

"Kids are taken out of school and parents are not informed," noted Natajah Roberts, a member of B.L.A.C.K. (Building Leadership and Community Knowledge). "(Parents) have to be (notified) because incarceration can ruin a child’s life, and it’s really a child’s life. (Getting arrested) can change the course of their entire life."

For the more than 800 16- and 17-year-old inmates currently in adult prisons, the proposal can’t become reality fast enough, noted Spaull.

Those juvenile prisoners are two times more likely than youths in juvenile facilities to be physically harmed, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times more likely to commit suicide, she explained.

"They are facing lifelong consequences for adolescent activities," Spaull said.

And, she added, 82 percent of incarcerated juveniles are youths of color, she added.

"That’s very close to every kid who’s incarcerated," she remarked.

Expanding interventions instead of just sending kids to prison has the support of such residents as George Pixley, a former high-school teacher who attended the two local presentations.

"Young people are far more capable of change … than we give them credit for," he said following the Feb. 23 presentation. "We need to create opportunities for them to take advantage of the future."

School administrators, in particular, need to remember that they are overseeing institutions of learning, Pixley said.

"We can’t help students if we throw them out (of school) or arrest them," he said. "That’s a punitive system, not a learning system."

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