State debates treatment of youthful offenders as adults

ALBANY — Benjamin Van Zandt was a high school student making honor-roll grades when he set fire to an unoccupied house a few miles from the state Capitol. He later confessed to detectives who’d told his parents they couldn’t be with him because the law allowed him to be treated as an adult.

At age 17, while he was being treated for schizophrenia, Van Zandt was sent to state prison for third-degree arson.

Forty-four months into that sentence, Van Zandt, known to the system as Inmate 11A0633, used his bed sheets and shoe laces to become the youngest inmate to kill himself in a New York prison while being held in solitary confinement.

His anguished parents are now among the most vocal proponents of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Cuomo stitched the initiative into his proposed budget.

The state court system, led by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, has given the measure its blessing.

While the judiciary’s annual budget of $2.2 billion has no specific funding to handle 16- and 17-year-old defendants in Family Court, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks advised lawmakers last week: “That’s a problem we would be happy to take on.”

But the idea is frowned upon by prosecutors who say some young offenders belong in the adult system based on the gravity of their crimes and because it provides victims with greater transparency. In Family Court, outcomes are cloaked in confidentiality.

The Sheriff’s Association is also voicing reservations, saying county governments could end up stuck with higher costs.

New York and North Carolina are the only states where 16- and 17-year-olds are automatically considered adults in the criminal justice system, according to advocates behind the “Raise the Age” campaign. Other states allow cases to be transferred from juvenile to criminal courts based on defendants’ age and severity of the crime.

In some 95 percent of the roughly 40,000 cases involving defendants younger than 18 annually, defendants come away with a sealed record, prosecutors say. That, they point out, is a major goal of Cuomo’s campaign.

Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler told a panel of state senators this week that advocates have framed “a solution in search of a problem,” noting that 1.6 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds charged as adults ended up in state prison in 2013.

Those who did, he said, were involved in such crimes as murder and rape, serious assaults or various sex offenses.

Hoovler, in an interview, said New York prosecutors are national leaders in the treatment of young people.

“We all agree we should treat these kids differently. We just don’t think they should be in Family Court,” he said.

A chief strategist for the push to increase the age, Paige Pierce, director of the advocacy group Families Together in New York State, said the proposal’s critics are “under the misconception that kids are going to get a slap on the wrist for a serious crime.”

The difference, she noted, is that all youths under age 18 facing criminal charges would have their cases handled in the juvenile justice system, which provides counseling and therapy programs to address their needs, as well as judges who regularly deal with children and teenagers.

Pierce cited a McArthur Foundation study that compared recidivism among youthful New Jersey offenders, who were treated as juveniles, with New York offenders of the same age charged with similar offenses. It found the latter group more likely to end up back behind bars.

“In every other area of the law, they are minors,” Pierce said. “We don’t allow them to buy cigarettes, and we don’t allow them to get tattoos. So why is it developmentally appropriate to send them to Rikers Island?”

But Republicans who control the state Senate are cool to the idea.

Sen. Betty Little, R-Warren County, said she would support removing adolescents who face non-violent charges from the criminal courts. She also wants to make sure local governments are not saddled with new costs.

“We need to think through the impact on county jails and parole and probation services,” said Little, who represents six counties in the North Country.

Complicating the position of Senate Republicans, however, is that they retain control over the upper chamber with a group of eight breakaway Democrats, some of whom have signaled support for raising the age of responsibility.

The state’s prosecutors, however, are not as convinced, said Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl, who cited public safety implications.

“I understand the argument that children’s brains aren’t fully developed,” he said. “But you can’t tell me that a child who is willing to plan and execute a serious rape or assault doesn’t know right from wrong.”

Muehl said he also has concerns about the consequences of exposing youthful car thieves in detention centers with those who perpetrated violent crimes.

In December 2015, a little more than a year after Van Zandt’s death at Fishkill State Prison, Cuomo directed his prison agency to separate 16- and 17-year-old inmates from older convicts. He reasoned that it would cut down on recidivism and save public dollars over the long term. They are now held at the Hudson State Prison.

“No matter how you look at it — whether it’s the economic benefits, the security benefits or the human benefits — this action is the right thing to do,” he said at the time.

As of this week, the Hudson prison housed 58 young inmates who will be dispatched to other prisons once they turn 18, the Department of Correctional Services reported.

This week in Albany, Van Zandt’s mother, Alicia Barraza, told lawmakers the story of how her son was sent to solitary on a false accusation that he’d been in a fight. He had been sexually accosted by an older inmate at another prison, she said, adding that corrections officers retaliated against him for complaining about their mistreatment of other inmates.

Her voice choking, Barraza challenged the argument that only the most hardened youth are swept into New York prisons.

“Teenagers make impulsive, bad decisions, but we also know they are capable of being rehabilitated. I truly believe Ben would be alive today if he had been given youthful offender status rather than be treated as an adult,” she said. “I don’t think our son was the worst of the worst.’

Several faith groups have aligned themselves with the campaign including the Reformed Jewish Voice of New York State, the New York State Catholic Conference and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

“We are more optimistic this year than ever,” Pierce said of the odds of revising the law.

Her group, Families Together, is organizing a major lobbying blitz on Valentine’s Day, in hopes of building support among lawmakers.”

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