Advocates to state: Don't prosecute 16-, 17-year olds as adults

Community leaders want the state's juvenile laws to be more lenient, pushing for alternatives to incarceration. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Aug. 20, 2013)

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There are two states in the country that can routinely prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and New York is one of them.

A diverse group of advocates outside State Supreme Court in Mineola Tuesday -- from former teen offenders to Nassau's district attorney -- called for state lawmakers to reform the criminal justice system and leave North Carolina as the only state to prosecute and lock up children as if they were adults.

Angelo Pinto, organizer of the Raise The Age Campaign at the Correctional Association of New York, which is leading the call for age-based criminal justice reform in New York, said teens "are prosecuted as adults for any crime they commit."

"They are then housed in adult jails," he said, "where they are subject to physical violence and sexual violence."

Some 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested and tried as adults in criminal courts statewide each year, almost 75 percent of those for misdemeanors, according to the Raise The Age Campaign, citing a report by the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy.

"Every year, thousands of New York teens are arrested and prosecuted and punished as adults they have yet to become," said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who was on hand with the group.

Rice, who said she supports a review of the concept broadly as long as it follows the legislative process, spoke on its detrimental effects.

"Treating each and every teen offender as an adult criminal is an unconscionable disregard for basic brain science and what we know about adolescent development," said Rice, who is seeking re-election this year.

In 2010, 2,704 Long Island youths between 16 and 17 were arrested, according to the Raise The Age Campaign.

Children as young as 13 can be convicted as adults for certain crimes in New York.

Advocates say children at that age should be put into rehabilitation services instead of jails, where they are subject to abuse, isolation and lack of services.

Dr. Ronald Feinstein, a pediatrician who has worked with Louisiana and Alabama authorities, said that if a child must be incarcerated, "it would be much more important to be involved in permanent rehabilitation."

Advocates who work with prison populations and youths now out of prison spoke about what they saw.

Rahsmia Zatar, 25, executive director of Strong Youth in Uniondale, said she sees kids who were incarcerated at a young age come out traumatized, sometimes suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her group offers a safe place for such children to speak and receive social services.

"This is a matter of humility," Zatar said. "Look back at your childhood and what you were thinking in your 16-year-old skin. You don't have the cognitive ability at that age."

Assemb. Joseph R. Lentol (D-Brooklyn) introduced legislation this year that would have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18. The measure never made it to committee.

The Raise The Age Campaign called on Long Island's state lawmakers to support and move such legislation forward. Leaders also hope to grab the attention of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after holding more events across the state.

"It's time to get the state legislature to act," said Jason Starr, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Angelique Wadlington, 27, from Bay Shore, was jailed at age 17 for drug possession. While in prison, she was locked up for 21 hours a day and was depressed.

After joining programs such as the Herstory Writers Workshop, part of the Raise The Age Campaign, she got her life together and now advocates for reform, knowing how alternative programs can change lives.

"I hope the campaign works because young people shouldn't have to suffer the loss of their future for a simple mistake made at 17," Wadlington said.

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