Advocates want juvenile offenders treated differently

ROCHESTER — When Kyle Chambers was 16, he was charged with robbery and sentenced to three to five years in prison.

But the Rochester native, now 19, landed a second chance when a social worker offered him entry into a program for juveniles. The program not only meant he would get out of serving prison time with adults, he said, but it also helped him deal with the negative emotions — of having a father who served prison time for most of Chamber’s childhood and a mother who also had stints in jail — that led him down the wrong path.

"I was in it for 14 months," Chambers said of the program. "I can say today that it completely saved my life."

Chambers was one of several young-adult men who spoke during the presentation "Dismantling Rochester’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline," which was sponsored by The Children’s Defense Fund of New York and The Children’s Agenda of Rochester. The June 13 event was held at the Thomas P. Ryan Community Center.

Chambers’ story illustrates the need to raise the minimum age that a minor can be sent to an adult prison, explained Jaime Koppel, director of youth and education justice for the Children’s Defense Fund.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that send minors 16 and younger to serve out sentences at adult prisons, depending on the kinds of crimes they commit, she said.

The Children’s Defense Fund has begun a "Raise the Age" campaign to instead send minors to juvenile facilities that are better equipped to handle their unique needs and reduce their rates on reincarceration, said Beth Powers, senior justice policy associate for The Children’s Defense Fund.

According to the "Raise the Age" campaign materials:

* Each year about 50,000 16 and 17 year olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court. Nearly 75 percent of those youths are arrested for misdemeanor offenses.

* More than 70 percent of the nearly 50,000 16 and 17 year olds arrested are black and Latino; of the more than 5,000 who are sentenced to incarceration, 80 percent are black and Latino.

* Recividism increases an average 33.7 percent when minors are placed in the adult court system.

"Treating them (minors) like adults is not working," noted Powers.

The impact of sending children into adult prisons is huge, especially since it affects black and Latino males so disproportionately, said Melanie Hartzgog, the defense fund’s executive director.

Placing minors in adult prisons also means the minors are more likely to be victimized while serving their sentences, Hartzgog said. Once released, they may not able to find gainful employment or continue their education because they do not qualify for college loans, she added.

"Think about that," Hartzgog said. "That is really devastating."

Brain development research also has shown that the adolescent brain is not fully developed, which is why teenagers are more prone to impulsive behaviors, Powers added.

"There is an appropriate way for us to look at young people, and it’s not the adult criminal justice system," Hartzgog said. "Young people need to be held accountable and need to be rehabilitated so they can go back to their communities and contribute positively."

In addition to advocating for raising the minimum age that a minor can be sent to an adult prison, the child advocacy agencies are looking to boost quality child-care and afterschool-care programs that will keep kids out of the prison pipeline, she added.

Research shows that such high-quality child care, especially before age 5, improves high-school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and lowers criminal activity, teen pregnancy and social-services dependency, noted Dr. Jeff Kaczorowski, president of and chief children’s advocate for The Children’s Agenda.

Additionally, more violent crimes take place between 3 and 6 p.m. than any other time of day, according to a petition by The Children’s Agenda Advocacy Network asking for additional funding for afterschool programs. Audience members were asked to sign the petition during the presentation.

"I’m sure we love our kids," Kaczorowski said. "Now, we need to become more powerful (advocates)."

In addition to signing the petition, the more than 100 people who attended the June 13 presentation were asked to also join the "Raise the Age" campaign individually or as an organization.

Kyle Chambers said that his experience illustrates why the "Raise the Age" campaign is so important. After he was taken out of the adult prison system, he was placed in a program that allowed him to graduate from the New Beginnings High School that is part of the Rochester City School District, he said. Now, Chambers works as an intern with the Center for Youth Services, he said.

Chambers also said he hopes local legislators and community members understand the importance of helping young people and offering them opportunities to stay out of trouble no matter their family circumstances.

"Because of my father, I felt I was destined to be in jail or prison," he said. "But when you do good, good things come to you."

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