Another Year, Another Attempt to Raise the Age

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

Katie Cusack, The Alt,

Jan. 10, 2017

“I can’t believe we’re here saying this again.”

Joe Paparone of Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration (CAAMI) looked exasperated as he stared down the press’ cameras along with fifteen other social justice and religious organization leaders in the Capitol’s War Room on Wednesday (Jan. 4).

They came in groups, gathering and mingling around 10:30 AM. Some looked over index cards and scrolled through phones, murmuring to themselves in preparation. Men and women in white collars started to trickle in, saying hello to their fellow activists who showed up to speak out against the youth incarceration.

But they’ve been here before.

According to the Raise the Age campaign, “last year, 249 members of the clergy from around the state supported ‘raise the age’ legislation.” This year, select leaders have returned to call for reform–specifically from Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein–to finally pass legislation against underage incarceration in the state. New York and North Carolina are the only remaining states allowing for children younger than 18 to be charged and incarcerated as adults.

In May 2015, the Senate bill (S5642A) aiming to raise the age from 16 to 18 years old was referred to the Senate committee. The last recorded progress was in May 2016, stating that it hasn’t yet reached assembly consideration, a vital step to becoming law.

The bill is designed not only to raise the age, but to reform other elements of the criminal justice system considering juvenile offenses. It would keep children under the age of 18 out of adult prisons, ensure the presence of a parent or guardian during questioning and sentencing and ensure a juvenile will not be imprisoned for breaking parole–given they are not a danger to others–as well as require family support centers and special care for children with significant behavioral health issues.

This is especially important to social justice organizations such as Families Together in New York State. Along with multiple other projects concerning family relations and mental health, the group represents not-for-profit organizations that ensure families undergoing a criminal justice process receive the age-appropriate services they need.

“We represent families with behavioral health needs [with children] who end up in the criminal justice system. These kids get picked up and parents don’t even get a call,” CEO Paige Pierce said. “We say, ‘nothing about us without us.’”

Pierce went on to explain that is as much about educating families as it is providing support. “Families don’t realize these kinds of practices occur until it happens to them.”

Some supporters came from outside of the Capital Region, such as representatives Grant Cowles and Stephanie Gendell from Citizen’s Committee for Children from New York City.

“We represent all children across New York state, and obviously that includes the 16- to 17-year-olds who are not getting the consideration they deserve,” Cowles told The Alt. The organization has been affiliated with the public campaign but Cowles says they’ve been working for this kind of legislation for much longer. “This is the same low-hanging fruit we’ve been hoping to get passed for years.”

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), there have been 27, 281 total arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds in New York–almost 20,000 of those were misdemeanors. While that is the lowest amount in the past four years, it’s too many children, the leaders believe, that are stuck with criminal records that will last their lifetimes.

“Nobody is [an adult] at 13, nobody is at 16 and nobody is at 17,” Interfaith Impact executive director Robb Smith added. “We know so much more about human developmental psychology in the last hundred years to be doing this in New York state. Don’t mess up our kids.”

There have been multiple studies conducted on the psychology of youth imprisonment that date back to the 1980s. One 2007 Centers for Disease Control task force study, “Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System,” states that the transferring of children under the age of 18 into the adult criminal justice system increases the rate of violence behavior and makes it more likely for them to return to the system after they serve their time.

“In general, juveniles differ from adults in their biologic development and mental processes and capacities. Juveniles are less aware of consequences, less able to regulate impulses or inhibit behavior, and thus less culpable for their actions than adults. In addition, juveniles have less ability to understand and thus participate in the standard adult judicial process. Finally, juveniles are more malleable and amenable to reform of their behavior.”

They learn violence and aggression from the inside, and in turn that becomes an accepted behavior once they leave.

“I’ve seen so many young lives damaged,” Rev. Valerie Faust (pictured above) said. “[Children] are subject to the adult criminal justice system . . . this same system, which has continually revealed itself to be abusive, racist, harmful–especially to our youths and especially to African-Americans and children of color.”

In fact, the DCJS states that black and hispanic youth make up 72 percent of all arrests and 77 percent of all felony arrests. Eighty-two percent of young black males are sentenced to adult prisons.

“Too long there has been inequity in our justice system,” Rev. Mark Johnson of the South End said.

The pastor of St. John’s Church of God in Christ told The Alt he has been working with Raise the Age for the past three years, but fighting against the negative outcomes of juveniles in the adult prison system for much longer. With a career history in the criminal justice system spanning roughly ten years in both juvenile and adult incarceration systems, he “witnessed firsthand” how juveniles placed in adult prisons watch and learn from their harsh surroundings.

“[Children] don’t have the opportunity to get up,” he said. “Things get hardened in their minds.”

He currently works in the South End where his family has lived for generations. He rehabilitates previously incarcerated individuals and helping their families to adjust in their changing lives. “We are asking legislators to get off their seats. Do the right thing to help our youth become more productive in our society.”

Source: The Alt,