Reflection from the Women’s City Club of New York panel, Youth and the New York State Criminal Justice System – Why Criminal Reform is Needed

by Claire Buonocore, Prospect Hill Foundation Intern

New York State’s Criminal Justice System is one of only two states in the country that allows for anyone over the age of 16 to be convicted as an adult. Last week the Women’s City Club of New York in partnership with the Citizens Committee for Children and the Correctional Association of New York hosted a panel discussion on what this means for New York’s youth. The program was entitled Youth and the New York State Criminal Justice SystemWhy Criminal Reform is Needed. The program hosted a wide range of panelists, including Anjelique Wadlington and Venida Browder, who have both been personally affected by the criminal justice system. Additional panelists included: retired Supervising Family Court Judge of Bronx County, Monica Drinane, the executive director of the Citizens Committee for Children, Jennifer March, Women’s City Club of New York executive director, Jacqueline Ebanks, and the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, Soffiyah Elijah.

Venida Browder’s son, Kalief Browder, was incarcerated at the age of 16 on charges of robbery. He was accused of stealing a backpack and was sent to Rikers Island for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to Mrs. Browder, children at Rikers often face worse abuses than adults; Kalief Browder was starved, beaten, refused the right to a shower for up to two weeks at a time, put in solitary, and once he was released, nothing was done to rehabilitate him back into society. At Rikers you are guilty until proven innocent, Kalief was never found guilty of any crime.

Once Kalief was released he was faced with many obstacles integrating back into the community including issues with finding employment, financial aid, and education. Unfortunately, Kalief’s mental health continued to deteriorate and two years after his release he committed suicide.

Kalief’s story does not stand alone, most children who come out of Rikers have similar tales, suffering from post-traumatic stress and difficulties integrating back into society. The brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 25 and yet at 16, you can be convicted as an adult for minor misdemeanors in New York. Children are our future but if they are seriously physically or mentally harmed by the State, what kind of future are we going to have?

Raise the Age is a bill that aims to increase the age of criminal responsibility; not only will it produce better outcomes for New York’s youth but also has been proven in other states to better protect public safety. According to the Correctional Association of New York, youth who receive age appropriate services are less likely to re-offend.

Last year “raise the age” bill was purposed but not passed.  It was a very complex piece of legislation presented at a time where there were issues with leadership in both houses. The bill was often overshadowed by others and it became extremely difficult to get officials interested. In order for any bill to get passed, it has to be a top legislative priority.

A year has passed since the first bill was proposed and now officials are slightly more informed. Due to a recent heroin epidemic in upstate New York and Long Island that has been impacting a lot of white youth, awareness about raise the age is more prevalent in those communities.  Prior to this year, the issue was happening mainly and disproportionately to children of color. The current bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; anyone under this age would be tried in Family Court. The entire panel encourages anyone interested in Raise the Age to send letters, emails, or call their local senator and assembly members.

For more on Raise the Age visit www.RaisetheAgeNY.com

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