Syracuse Post-Standard Op-Ed: NY needs to ‘raise the age’ of criminal responsibility (Commentary)

The writer lives in Syracuse.

By Carol Bryant

It’s something I do a lot on Mother’s Day, spending some of the day reflecting on what happened to my daughter and her son, and wondering if I could have done anything differently.

My grandson suffers from a mental illness. When he was 16, he was arrested after some so-called friends coerced him into stealing Chinese food from a delivery car.

What happened next was horrifying. Because he was 16, he was charged as an adult. Neither his parents nor I were notified about his arrest. And then he was put into the adult system –€“ moved from our county jail to a facility in Elmira and finally, after being sentenced to 18 months, ending up in state prison.

Sadly, it gets worse. Even after our request to move him to the mental health section of the prison, he was at the mercy of a dysfunctional system. He was raped by a fellow inmate, even as he cried out to nearby guards for help.

I knew something was wrong when I visited him after that brutal attack but he wouldn’t tell me about it. I called the counselors every couple of weeks but they assured me everything was fine. “Nothing to report.”

I will never forget the day when he was finally discharged from the prison. He burst into tears. I tried my best to help him –€“ still not knowing what was wrong. We went to Sears and I bought him some new clothes to help him start anew. His parole officer, who had seen this kind of thing before, suggested I take him to an emergency psychiatric facility to try to get help.

I knew something was wrong when I visited him after that brutal attack but he wouldn’t tell me about it.

Nothing worked. And it wasn’t until months after his release that he finally told his grandfather what happened. He hasn’t been the same since. It’s been going on seven years and he’s still having severe emotional problems.

My grandson’s story shouldn’t happen to anyone. Yes –€“ what he did was wrong. Even though his friends pressured him into doing it, he did it.

But kids who are 16 shouldn’t be stuck into a system without their parents being called. They shouldn’t be forced into a world where youth are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, twice as likely to be beaten by staff and almost 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon by another inmate.

New York is one of only two states in the entire country where 16-year-olds are automatically charged as adults, without their parents being notified, and thrown into the adult system. (North Carolina is the other state.) Several other states charge 17-year-olds as adults, but even many of those are now raising the age to 18.

They’re doing this because studies have proven that raising the age of adult incarceration is good for kids like my grandson and for our communities as a whole. Youths who go through the juvenile system are less likely to reoffend, giving them a chance to turn their lives around and become productive citizens.

The juvenile justice system isn’t a slap on the wrist. Families are involved and there are real consequences. But the juvenile justice system also provides youths with the services they need and a secure facility where they are less likely to be attacked or raped. This Mother’s Day, I hope Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature can come together and finally raise the age.

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