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Supporters Urge New York to Stop Prosecuting 16-Year-Olds as Adults

Kari Lindberg

“We have a justice system in New York that is addicted to punishment."

“He loved to play Yu-Gi-Oh, he loved to think that he was a Dragon Ball Z character,” said Akeem Browder to an assembled crowd in front of New York City Hall on Saturday.

“He loved to be home in a safe environment,” Browder continued.

Browder was describing his brother, Kalief, who, after being accused of stealing a book bag at 16 years old, was sent to the Rikers Island jail complex for three years without a trial. Kalief, who spent about 800 days of that time in solitary confinement, died by suicide two years after his release.

New York is one of only two states to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for nonviolent crimes. Browder’s remarks came during a rally this weekend aimed at changing that: As part of the state budget bill, the New York legislature is considering raising the age of youths tried in criminal court for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies to 18. Juveniles charged with violent felonies would be tried in a newly created section of the state supreme court. After clearing the assembly in February, the budget will be voted on in the state senate on Thursday.

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At Saturday’s rally, supporters argued that had such a law been in place in 2010, Kalief Browder would not have been sent to what Darren Mack of the #CLOSErikers Campaign described as “the Abu Ghraib of New York City.”

“We have a justice system in New York that is addicted to punishment,” Mack, who was arrested at 17 and sent to Rikers, told the crowd. “Enacting this law is the first step toward changing our criminal justice system in the 21st century—that’s more just and humane.”

In 2016, nearly 25,000 juveniles were arrested in New York who, at ages 16 and 17, faced the possibility of prosecution as an adult in criminal court. Seventy percent of those youths were arrested on misdemeanor charges that year; nearly 16 percent faced nonviolent felony charges.

If young people aren’t tried as adults, there are a number of alternative punishments judges can impose on them: juvenile detention centers, community-based rehabilitation facilities, residential facilities, and probation and other home-based treatment and services. These alternatives are not without faults; for example, juveniles of color are disproportionately sentenced to time behind bars, and many institutions don’t allow extended family visits or out-of-bounds recreation. But the psychological trauma often induced by adult prison, given that a juveniles brain isn’t fully developed and is still highly receptive to change, has long been cited by psychologists and scientists.

Studies have found that juveniles in the adult prison system are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for felony crimes, twice as likely to report being beaten by a staff member, 50 percent more likely to be attacked by a weapon in prison, and face the highest risk of sexual assault by others in prison.

Attending the rally was 16-year-old Jorge Guifarro, who had been arrested after a physical altercation and charged with assault in the third degree, a misdemeanor, in January 2016.

Although Guifarro, at 15, was released with the stipulation that his father pick him up from court, he was worried that only slightly older adolescents might be put in prison. “I can’t put it into words—it’s like, ‘Wow, why do we have to go to Rikers?’ We don’t fit in that environment, where older people can abuse us, and where we have no strength,” he said in an interview with Rewire.

Opponents of the proposal in the budget bill, like the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, have reported concern for community safety and a lack of access to a youth’s previous criminal background if they become repeat offenders. Additionally, opponents claim that family and juvenile court sentences are often harsher than criminal court sentences. (Frontline found in 2015 that there is “no extensive research comparing the lengths of prison sentences received by juveniles convicted in criminal court with those who remained in the juvenile system.”)

Rewire reached out to the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police for comment; no response was given.  

Mack, meanwhile, pointed out to Rewire that after Connecticut passed a law raising the minimum age of adult prosecution for misdemeanors, there has been a seven percentage point decrease in re-arrests of juveniles.

The argument cautioning repeat offenses, he said after the rally, is “false, and they don’t have the data to support it.”

New York Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney Philip Desgranges told Rewire via phone interview that it is actually in the interest of public safety to raise the minimum age for prosecution. “Juveniles who receive age-appropriate rehabilitative services are much more likely to not engage in future violent or nonviolent offenses, versus those who go through the criminal court system,” he said.

In the end, though, it is hard to say whether politicians in Albany will be convinced. Meanwhile, the other state with a minimum criminal age of 16, North Carolina, has also introduced a similar bill with bipartisan support in its state house.

“I’m happy people came to show support for the bill,” said Akeem Browder speaking to Rewire after the rally, “But the people that really mattered—the politicians—none showed up.”  

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