ALBANY, New York — At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.
She slumped in her seat on the repurposed school bus and wearily placed her face into her hands.
“I need a nap,” she said.
At that point Albany seemed more like 900 miles away than 90, but Wednesday Soffiyah Elijah wore footwear that wasn’t sneakers for the first time in 18 days. She pointed to her brown-and-tan strap sandals inside LaZeez, the Indian restaurant where she was planning the rally for later that evening and cracked a joke.
“It feels good to be in something other than sneakers,” she said, flashing a brilliant smile.
She had launched the March for Justice on Aug. 26 in Harlem in Manhattan. And after walking through numerous counties, towns, villages and cities, they had finally made it.
Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, conceived of the march as a way to employ traditional 20th-century civil rights tactics to draw attention to what she considers an urgent 21st-century civil rights catastrophe in New York: the abuse of prisoners in the state’s juvenile adult facilities and the broken criminal justice system that puts them there. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on Earth. In New York, often heralded as a beacon of progressivism, 80 percent of its prison population is black or Hispanic.
Elijah’s organization is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. It fights for a number of issues — from voter registration to meaningful raise-the-age reforms, as well as supporting the families with loved ones behind bars.
New York’s prisons are almost exclusively upstate, away from New York City, often in bucolic surroundings near charming hamlets and villages. Elijah strategically selected a route that would take the march past as many prisons as possible en route to Albany, the heart of political power in the state.
At 5 p.m. the march culminated in a rally in West Capitol Park, in the center of vast, imposing state government buildings. Behind the stage was the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, its granite facade etched with the names of many of the counties the marchers crossed: Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Green.
Elijah opened the rally by launching into her favorite chant, one she recited dozens of times. It begins: “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family …” She did her trademark crouch and shimmy and then ran into the crowd like the front man of a rock band and kept leading the chant. She approached Miss Ivey, the oldest of the marchers who made it all the way from Harlem, and held her signature red megaphone to Miss Ivey’s mouth so she could lead the chant.
Across the lawn of the park sat the New York Capitol Building, on either side the monumental Legislative and state Educational buildings. The emcee, Alliance member Carol Harriott, kept the mood light as well, making jokes and moving the evening along with an upbeat, conversational tone. She teased Elijah at one point and had the crowd laughing.
Many of the 200 people who gathered for the rally wore T-shirts or held handmade posters advocating for the cause they think is in most need of reform. Some support ending solitary confinement for youth, others for improved reentry services.
Whatever the cause, all the attendees were in agreement with the march’s aim — to bring as much attention as possible to what they see as a civil rights catastrophe in New York’s criminal justice system. One recurring theme for speakers was the need to convert the energy created by the march into tangible policy successes.
Again and again, speakers encouraged attendees to reach out to politicians and policymakers at every level of government. As the sun set, in a theatrical gesture Elijah showed how she was going to tell Andrew, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She raised her megaphone to her mouth and led a chant about bringing an end to the prison state. Her voice was rugged and raw after 18 days of chants, but it could be heard clearly as it bounced off the walls of the Capitol building.
Throughout the evening speakers talked about the list of demands. Chief among them was closing down the Attica Correctional Facility, which Elijah called New York’s Abu Ghraib. She had timed the march with the anniversary of what some call a riot and others call a rebellion and an uprising, when Attica prisoners took corrections officers hostage to draw attention to abuses happening inside the prison.
“If you consider yourself a person of conscience,” Elijah said. “Then you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”
Throughout the two-hour rally speakers came to tell their stories and give intimate, human examples of what they meant when they used the clunky phrase “prison industrial complex.”
Alicia Barraza, a veteran of the political battle to raise the age of treating juveniles as adults during the last state legislative session, recounted the story of her son, Ben Van Zandt. She talked about how as a result of a severe mental illness he committed a crime, arson, when he was 17. He was charged as an adult and placed in series of adult prisons where he endured beatings, rapes and frequent harassment due to his illness. Eventually, he ended up in Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a prison in Beacon, New York, where Elijah and her marchers had a confrontation with an administrator who accused them of riling up the inmates.
While he was in Fishkill, Baraza was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Eventually, he killed himself. He was 21.
“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Barraza said.
When she explained that her son committed suicide, the crowd gasped. She cautioned the crowd to be vigilant. Despite the Empire State passing a law to raise the age, district attorneys still have vast power to steer teenagers into the adult system.
“People should be paying attention,” she said.
Some marchers reunited for the first time since meeting on the road. Friends, associates and fellow activists chatted amiably between speakers. But after Barraza spoke, the mood took a jarring turn.
For most of the evening the mood had been light and jovial, despite the seriousness of the event. Harriott took back the microphone. For most of the evening she had been upbeat. She suddenly appeared shaken, overcome with sorrow.
She made a few halting attempts to encourage people to be active, her voice starting to crack.
“I’ve run out of words,” she said.
She stepped away from the microphone, slid her fingers beneath her glasses and wiped away tears. Elijah came up from the crowd, where she had been glad-handing and hugging well-wishers, to meet her. She hugged Harriot, who was now sobbing.
Other marchers noticed Harriot, who, like them, had made some part of the 180-mile journey from Harlem to the shadow of the statehouse in Albany. They took a few more steps to join in consoling her.
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NEW YORK — It was the tail-end of rush hour on a Thursday in March, and commuters were packed tightly onto a Brooklyn bus in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Passengers included a woman with her two small children, a Brooklyn father on the way from one job to another, and a couple of kids from rival gangs.
Not all of them got out alive.
Kahton Anderson was near the rear of the bus when he spotted rival gang members in the front. He pulled out a gun and fired into the crowded bus, missing his intended targets.
But Angel Rojas, a 39-year-old father of two, was shot in the back of the head. He died before he made it to the hospital.
“It was sad, it was horrible,” Knight said.
Stories like these of gun violence are common in New York City, and around the nation, but this one was notable for a reason: the accused, Kahton Anderson, was a 14-year-old boy.
“I can’t believe it was a 14-year-old that did this,” Knight said. “I’m glad they got him.”
Enter the Governor
In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the members of the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, created in part to address raising the age of criminal responsibility. Today, New York and North Carolina are the only two states where young people 16 and older are automatically treated as adults.
“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address this year. “It’s not right, it’s not fair — we must raise the age.”
The commission is tasked with serving up concrete recommendations about raising the age and juvenile justice reform by December. Alphonso David, the governor’s deputy secretary of civil rights, said the commission has to strike a balance.
“When we think about criminal justice reform we are addressing two platforms: reducing recidivism and ensuring public safety,” David said. “We are very focused on advancing both objectives, so recommendations would likely factor in both goals.”
Supporters of raise the age groups, like Campaign for Youth Justice, have touted studies that conclude young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s, and therefore are more open to rehabilitation. Research has also found that juveniles in adult prisons have much higher rates of suicide and physical and sexual abuse, and are more likely to be kept in solitary confinement compared to those in juvenile facilities.
“We’ve done a lot of polling and it tells us that people don’t like kids being in adult court,” said Jessica Sandoval, Campaign for Youth Justice’s vice president. “My instinct is to say that there’s an understanding among Americans that this isn’t how we should do business.”[module type="aside" align="right"]
Learn more about juvenile justice issues and reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.[/module]
In addition to safety concerns for youth held inside adult prisons, these young offenders can also face tough barriers to re-entering society, something advocates say keeps them cycling back through the system. Youth Represent, whose board chair will serve on the governor’s commission, regularly provides legal representation to young New Yorkers after they’ve been released.
Alison Wilkey, Youth Represent’s legal and policy director, said young people prosecuted as adults have to deal with more challenges once they are released. Public housing authorities, for example, can try to evict their families if they’ve been tried as an adult. And for young people applying to college, the difference between a juvenile offense and an adult criminal offense can decide their futures.
“Colleges ask about criminal records,” Wilkey said. Young people from other states who were arrested at 16 have only juvenile records, which are usually sealed, while 16-year-olds in New York have to state on their college applications if they have a criminal record. Because of this, “New York’s young people are at a huge disadvantage,” Wilkey said.
Not Everyone Agrees
But with high-profile cases like Kahton Anderson’s making the news, public support of Raise the Age legislation isn’t unanimous. Right now in New York, someone as young as 13 can be tried as an adult for serious offenses, which is why 14-year-old Anderson’s murder charge will be heard in adult criminal court, and potential legislation may not change that. In Connecticut, where a Raise the Age bill was passed in 2007, an important stipulation of the bill’s passage was that youths 14 and older who commit serious crimes can still be sent to adult court.
State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, the chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections committee, said the public’s perception of youthful offenders depends on the types of crimes they commit.
“Certainly murders, rapes, violent crimes are things that make people — the natural reaction from law-abiding citizens when they see something like that is they have very little tolerance and want them to be held accountable,” Gallivan said. “So the question is, do we treat those that commit violent crimes the same way as nonviolent offenders?”
Gallivan said he’s yet to decide his stance on raising the age, and he and the rest of committee are waiting to see the results of the governor’s commission before moving forward.
Cuomo’s raise the age commission is part of a broader criminal justice reform in the state. Since 2008, New York state’s Office of Children and Family Services has closed 21 juvenile facilities, and since 2010, the number of juveniles placed in residential care has dropped 20 percent.
With the success of Connecticut’s Raise the Age legislation, which resulted in fewer youth in the system even with the addition of 16- and 17-year-olds, advocates have this in their favor as the committee enters into deliberations on what reforms they should propose. Alphonso David, Gov. Cuomo’s deputy Secretary of Civil Rights, said that fewer youth in the system creates the challenge of successfully reintegrating them back into society.
“Prison populations are lower and crime is down,” David said. “As we reduce the numbers of people incarcerated, we need to think creatively and strategically about how we engage folks in re-entry.”
State Sen. Gallivan said the commission is not likely to come out of talks with a fully formed piece of legislation; rather, it will make recommendations and see if a legislator will initiate a bill to introduce. But he thinks the fact that New York is one of only two states to set the age of criminal responsibility at 16 will factor into lawmakers’ decisions about initiating and supporting legislation.
“If New York is an outlier, or one of two that doesn’t do something, why?” Gallison said. “Anytime you’re the outlier, there’s reason to determine why and either justify it, or not. I think lawmakers will consider that.”
Jessica Sandoval at the Campaign for Youth Justice is optimistic about a bill being passed, but understands these things don’t happen overnight.
“I think the ball is definitely rolling in New York,” Sandoval said. “These campaigns are long and arduous, and there’s a lot of compromise and dealings back and forth. Sometimes it takes several legislative sessions to work out all the kinks. But if this … comes out with some really strong recommendations, I think [legislation to raise the age] will happen in the next few years, absolutely.”
Not since the opening of the first juvenile reform school in 1886 has our nation’s approach to confining delinquent youth experienced such fundamental and widespread change. From California to New York, states are reducing juvenile placements, shuttering facilities and shifting money and kids to county control. If done thoughtfully, it’s a trend that holds much promise.
This national realignment movement took a huge step forward on Sept. 1, when New York state’s “Close to Home” law went into effect. When fully operational, the law will ensure that all but a handful of delinquent youth from our nation’s largest city are cared for locally in New York City, rather than in large, distant and debilitating state institutions.
The passage of Close to Home was the culmination of more than a decade of work. Between 2002 and 2011, the city reduced institutional placements of delinquent youth by 62 percent, while experiencing a 31 percent decline in major felony arrests of juveniles.
Under Close to Home, New York City is creating a continuum of high-quality, community-based programs and facilities. City youth who were formerly placed in “non-secure” state facilities are being transferred to 35 small facilities run by non-profits located near their home; the same will happen next fall for youth in “limited secure” placement. By freeing up funds that were tied to antiquated reform schools, Close to Home will allow the city to fund more and better community-based programs, which will in turn improve public safety and further reduce unnecessary confinement.
The initiative, which was shepherded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed with bi-partisan support, has many advantages over the traditional state-centralized, institution-based model. Instead of being sent to large institutions far away from home, which often requires families to travel hundreds of miles, parents and guardians will now be able to take the subway to see their child, facilitating family therapy and helping the young person transition back into the community. Instead of being confined in state institutions with unaccredited schools, youth will remain in the New York City school system, assuring that they get credit for their work and improving their chances of staying in school.
New York state isn’t alone in maintaining public safety by localizing juvenile justice and reducing institutionalization. California reduced the number of confined young people from more than 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 1,000 today. In California, 99 percent of adjudicated youth are now housed or supervised by counties, with county costs defrayed by $93.4 million in state funds last year alone.
A look at crime data from the California Department of Justice shows that these changes have not come at the expense of public safety. While the incarcerated state youth population in California declined by 84 percent from 1996 to 2008, the juvenile arrest rate declined by 32 percent. Meanwhile, as the adult prison population was increasing by 21 percent during that same time, the adult arrest rate declined by a more modest 15 percent.
In Michigan, Wayne County, which includes Detroit, had 731 youth confined in state facilities in 1998; last year it had four. When state and county officials agreed to realign care and funds from the state to the county, county officials contracted with five Care Management Organizations (CMOs), which are similar to HMOs. The CMOs receive a block grant for the youth in their catchment area, which incentivizes them to place youth in local, successful and cost-effective programs. Wayne County’s remarkable decrease in state commitments has been accompanied by a compliance rate that exceeds 90 percent while the young people are under care, and a felony reconviction rate of 18 percent for youth released from secure care two years after they return to the community.
In 1991, Ohio was home to four of the 20 most overcrowded juvenile facilities in the nation. In 1994 the state launched RECLAIM Ohio, which carefully incentivizes county innovation. Under the program, if counties safely reduce state juvenile placements in a given year, they earn more money the following year.
When RECLAIM was piloted in 1994, pilot counties quickly reduced state commitments (mostly for low-level felonies) by 42 percent, while commitments from the non-pilot counties actually increased. By 2011, the number of RECLAIM-funded programs initiated statewide topped 600, while the number of youth sent to state facilities dropped by 79 percent.
Since its inception, the training school model, which Mayor Bloomberg called a “relic of a bygone era,” has had disappointing results and been plagued by a never-ending cycle of scandalous abuses followed by cosmetic reforms. But, between 2001 and 2010, there was a 33 percent decline nationally in the number of youth in confinement, with declines in 43 states. Through the increasing use of more effective risk assessment tools, evidence-informed programs, and creative fiscal incentives, local jurisdictions are creating a fundamentally more balanced approach to juvenile delinquency that may bring the juvenile justice system into modern times and end our reliance on the 19th century training school model.
This means if you are 16 or 17 and charged with a criminal offense, you are automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. There are no exceptions, no possibility of waiving the rule, and no second chances. So, when a 10th grader pushes another student in the hallway of a school that has a zero-tolerance policy, the 16-year-old will face misdemeanor assault charges in criminal district court. Likewise, a 17-year-old prosecuted for stealing a bike from a neighbor’s garage would face charges of breaking and entering as well as larceny.
Once in adult court, one of two general outcomes will result -- both of which are costly and counterproductive. Either these adolescents end up with criminal records that will likely follow them forever, harming their opportunities for higher education and gainful employment, or they will be given a “pass” because of their status as young offenders, in which case no one will take the time to address what caused the conduct. Under the first scenario, the criminal justice system has labeled and stigmatized a teenager without justification, and under the second, it has sent the message that the misbehavior is -- quite literally -- inconsequential.
Regardless, neither youth will have an opportunity to benefit from the resources and intensive supervision available in juvenile court, including psychological evaluations, drug and alcohol treatment and family counseling. Equally important, the parents of these teens will not be under the court’s jurisdiction and, therefore, will have no formal obligation to monitor and support their child during the pendency of the case or while the youth is on probation.
North Carolina has long been in the minority on this issue; the state is currently only one of two to set the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction at 15. Ten other states have set it at 16, while the vast majority -- 38 states -- have set it at 17. I have been involved over the years in an unsuccessful statewide campaign to raise the maximum age from 15 to 17 in North Carolina, speaking before the Legislature, writing academic articles on the law and publishing commentary in support of reform.
Although proposed legislation to raise the age was approved by a state House Judiciary committee, it languished in the House Appropriations Committee and is now in the hands of an “implementation commission,” all of which means that North Carolina’s 16- and 17- year-olds -- no matter the circumstances of the offense -- continue to be prosecuted in adult criminal court.
Given this perspective, I was heartened by the June report of the National Conference of State Legislatures that a “major trend” in juvenile justice policy in the past decade has been to expand the reach of the juvenile court by increasing the upper age of jurisdiction.
In 2007, for example, Connecticut raised the maximum age from 15 to 17, moving more than 10,000 new cases from criminal to juvenile court annually and returning about $3 in benefits for every $1 in costs; the Rhode Island Legislature rejected the governor’s recommendation to drop the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 17 to 16; and Missouri expanded juvenile court jurisdiction by including all those 18 and younger who are “status offenders” (alleged to be truant, runaways, or beyond the control of their parents). Similar reforms have been passed in Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi and Oklahoma.
Yet, ironies continue to abound. In August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill requiring those under 18 to have parental consent before they may pierce any body part other than their ears. Not only that, but consent must be given by the parent in writing at the time of the piercing and in the presence of the shop owner or technician. The bill was drafted in response to health and safety concerns, including research showing that 20 percent of all body piercings result in infection. Such a law makes sense, of course, but it was passed in the only other state besides North Carolina that considers all 16- and 17- year-olds to be adults whenever they are charged with a criminal offense.
So, how to explain a scenario in which a parent’s written, in person consent is required before a 16-year-old can get her belly button pierced but the same youth can be criminally prosecuted as an adult if she steals a magazine from the local drug store?
It is, most likely, the function of political expedience. Sixteen- and 17- year-olds who are charged with crimes do not comprise a powerful special interest group. The majority are children of color; they live in low-income neighborhoods, and their parents (for the most part) do not vote. In contrast, a significant number of 16- and 17-year-olds who get body piercings are white and from families of means. Their parents lobbied for the New York bill; the governor delivered.
I was not surprised to learn that North Carolina has a similar bill on the books. My hope is that a law to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction is not far behind.