Raise the Age Law Poses Challenges

A new youth incarceration system designed to be more humane has not yet become so, advocates said on Thursday, Dec. 6.

At a panel discussion sponsored by the New School, city and state officials and representatives of several nonprofits discussed the recent removal of youth from Rikers Island and staffing at new juvenile facilities.

The panel came just a few months after New York’s Raise the Age law went into effect. Signed by Gov. Cuomo last year, the law raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and ended the practice of automatically treating people as young as 16 as adults in the criminal justice system. It also required the removal of all 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers Island jails into Horizons Juvenile Center in the Bronx. And newly-incarcerated youths are now held at the Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn.

Ben “Cincere” Wilson, who works with the Institute for Transformative Mentoring at the Center for New York City Affairs, moderated Thursday’s panel, which included city and state officials as well as advocates for incarcerated youth. The six panelists discussed the impact of the new law, which took effect Oct. 1, before an audience of about 200 people.

The number of youth going through family court and juvenile or “adolescent” court systems that handle cases involving youth offenders has dropped about 60 percent in recent years, said Dana Kaplan from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

“Anecdotally, there are still more young people in adolescent courts now than the city had hoped for since Raise the Age was passed,” she said. The goal, she said, is to have no young people in any form of jail at all.

Panelist Kate Rubin from Youth Represent, a nonprofit in New York providing legal advice to incarcerated youth, made the distinction between what the law had already accomplished and what it had not. For her, the best achievement so far is that all youth under 18 are no longer housed at Rikers Island. Instead, they have all been moved to the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx.

However, because Raise the Age is being implemented in stages, 17-year-olds are still being treated as adults in the criminal justice system. So, while 16-year-olds are no longer treated as adults in court as of Oct. 1, this aspect of the law won’t affect 17-year-olds until Oct. 1, 2019.

That’s not soon enough for Rubin, who cited brain development as the reason that youth should be treated differently from adults. “Brains continue to develop beyond the age of 18 and sometimes into a person’s 20s,” Rubin said. “Whether a 16-year-old jumps a turnstile or stabs somebody, that fact doesn’t change.”

Panelist Felipe Franco from the Administration of Children’s Services’ noted that juveniles who were incarcerated at Rikers before the law went into effect and have since been removed are not housed with those who have been incarcerated since Oct. 1.

“The 16- and 17-year-olds that were removed from Rikers are now housed in Horizon Juvenile Center,” he said. “But the 16-year-olds that are being detained after Raise the Age went into effect are housed in Brooklyn’s Crossroads Juvenile Center.”

This means, Kaplan said, that if a girl was arrested at 16 before the law went into effect, and then another 16-year-old girl is arrested for the same crime after Raise the Age, the two girls would not be housed together. Lawmakers decided this separation would prevent potentially dangerous situations from arising if youth roughened by the Rikers’ environment mixed with newcomers.

“We have protections that prohibit contact between those at the Crossroads Juvenile Center and those moved out of Rikers,” Kaplan said.

This distinction between existing detainees and new ones troubled panelist Shanduke McPhatter, whose nonprofit Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes Inc. focuses on stopping police shootings in the streets of the city, but also provides support to incarcerated youth. He said that officials at the facilities do not always welcome that support.

“When we try to work with our youth in youth facilities we get pushback because people don’t understand that our past experiences are going to help them,” he said. McPhatter, who was previously incarcerated at Rikers Island, described a painful personal anecdote of having to strip naked and squat in front of people.

His concern about quality and imbalance within services offered to youth was cited as a major challenge several times during the panel. Staffing at the juvenile centers is still not up to full capacity, and the staff on hand don’t have the same type of expertise as advocacy groups, some panelists said.

Franco of the Administration for Children’s Services noted that the facilities are not yet up to full staff. “We’re actually short 400 youth development specialists,” he said, referring to government-assigned staff who help incarcerated youth prepare to re-enter daily life after release. “I think one of the reasons is that the city pays very little to do a very difficult job.”

For grassroots advocates on the panel like McPhatter and Antoine Kennedy of Man Up Inc., mandated youth development specialists aren’t able to understand kids as well as advocates who have themselves been through the criminal justice system.

“We bring our personal experiences and we can relate to the young and we do everything we can for them,” Kennedy said, adding that the kids she works with respect her more than they respect government-assigned youth development specialists. “I’m supposed to be on vacation right now and yet I’m here, and after this, I’m going to assist them at the court because I want them to feel connected.”

According to the advocates, Administration for Children’s Service should work directly with organizations like theirs to understand their needs.

“My staff was working with a young girl once who went MIA, and we reported to ACS that the best thing to do was not coax her to come back and give her time,” McPhatter said. “It worked out fine, but ACS was not happy with that, which undermined my staff’s credibility.”

In response, Franco acknowledged that the Administration for Children’s Services is not known as a friendly agency. “Unfortunately, civil services are not set up to interrupt stuff on the streets as you guys do,” he said to McPhatter and Kennedy.

As the staffing issues at new facilities were discussed, many expressed concern that the conditions of Rikers are simply being recreated in the more comfortable juvenile facilities where young people are now being held. Even though these renovated facilities have environments that are less harsh than Rikers, many of the same officers from Rikers being reassigned to the facilities, and advocates are worried they are recreating Rikers’ violent culture.

As one audience member noted at the end of the event, “If you get sexually assaulted in a better-looking facility, you’re still getting sexually assaulted.”

“That’s something we will continue to work on,” Kaplan from the Mayor’s Office replied. “The city has to be laser-focused on that culture change.”