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Suffolk youth court program gets lives on track after crime

Kyree Johnson, right, of Huntington Station, walks with

Kyree Johnson, right, of Huntington Station, walks with off-duty Suffolk Police Officer Anthony Iadevaio and other volunteers in Huntington Station as they look for homeless people who might need food or shelter on Feb. 9, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Kyree Johnson, a 17-year-old track star, has a different purpose for wandering the streets of Huntington Station at night than he did two years ago.

Back then, before Suffolk’s youth court helped him get control of his life, his purpose was to punch Latino men in the head and steal their money. Now, even though his criminal case is resolved and his record sealed as a youthful offender, he continues performing the community service that was once required — handing out fliers on how to get help to homeless men, many of them Latino.

“I feel like I need to give back to the community, to show that I’m not a bad kid,” Johnson said during one frigid night last week.

Johnson, a junior at Huntington High School who plans to go to college on a track scholarship, represents one of the successes of the youth court, run by state Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho in Central Islip. It is a program designed to divert teens who commit felonies from a life shuttling between crime and punishment.

Camacho said he began thinking about the problem when he was a homicide prosecutor in New York City, trying gang members who had turned upper Manhattan into a free-fire zone. After he left the district attorney’s office, he said he spent months talking to gangsters as young as 14 and realized they were children who had bounced from foster home to foster home, not cared for by their parents, thrown out of school, wanted by no one but street gangs. The same thing happens on Long Island, he said.

Sending a 16-year-old kid to jail is more likely to create a problem than to solve one, he said. When that kid comes home after two or three years in prison, Camacho said he returns with street credibility, gang membership, no prospects in legitimate society and enough anger to fuel a lifetime of despair.

“What did that accomplish?” Camacho said. “Now you’ve created a violent young man.”

For the past three years, Camacho has tried another way. He has recruited a small army of social workers, drug counselors, probation officers, lawyers and advocates to work with young felony defendants. He likens it to a zone defense in sports, to make it impossible for any kid in the program to fall through the cracks.

So far, it seems to be working. Less than a quarter of the defendants who come through the program have committed new crimes — about a third of the usual recidivism rate for young offenders. About 130 people have taken part in the program.

To take part, defendants typically plead guilty to a felony with the promise that if they do well under the court’s supervision, they’ll be allowed to substitute a plea to a lesser charge and have their records sealed. Every Monday, Camacho sets aside his usual caseload to focus on teenage defendants.

On one such day recently, a probation officer said one young man had recently refused to take a drug test, and he complained, “They’re just trying to pin something on you.”

“Well, you know, you always have an excuse,” Camacho replied, as a courtroom full of other defendants and parents listened carefully. “It’s always somebody else’s fault. ... The next time you have another issue, you’re going back to jail, you understand?”

Moments later, Camacho congratulated another teenage defendant who made it through the program after taking part in a robbery in November 2014. After Camacho sealed his record, the defendant asked, “Can I get a note for school?”

Prosecutors and defense lawyers praise the way the court has worked.

“Any effort to address substance abuse, gang affiliation, truancy and other issues which lead young people to interact with the criminal justice system should be encouraged,” District Attorney Thomas Spota said in a statement. He said Camacho is “addressing the underlying issues and providing the necessary services, while also using a firm hand when defendants become noncompliant.”

Camacho’s insistence on communication helps make the court work, said Gail D’Ambrosio, the senior probation officer who arranges services there.

“Some of the kids are scared,” she said. “They want to do the right thing right off the bat.”

Defense attorney Daniel Russo said Camacho’s background and temperament are important.

“He’s handled, as a prosecutor, some very heavy cases,” Russo said. “He knows the difference between crime and kids being stupid.”

Establishing trust is important, said Feride Castillo, a children’s advocate and one of the founders of Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island. Eventually, participants in the youth court realize that the adults who work there are more interested in providing help than punishment, she said.

The youth court has an enthusiastic partner in the form of the Youth Tier, established in 2011 by Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. Inmates on that tier continue in school, get counseling, job training and other services to ensure that they don’t come back. Many of the inmates on the tier are also participants in the youth court.

“It’s a perfect marriage,” DeMarco said of the youth court. “Our goal, really, is to wipe out a whole generation of criminals. We’re doing this by turning kids’ lives around.”

Prisoners agree.

Devin Nemley, 19, of Huntington is one of Camacho’s rare repeat offenders.

“He doesn’t look at you like a criminal,” said Nemley, who was arrested in December on a robbery charge. “He looks at you as a child who made a mistake.”

Nemley vowed to get back on track, and said he was grateful both to the court and the Youth Tier in the jail.

Another Youth Tier inmate, Charles Harris, said Camacho hasn’t given up on him despite a probation violation.

“He’s actually given me a second chance,” said Harris, 20, of Wyandanch. “He wants to see progress. He wants me to have a life.”

Johnson, the track standout from Huntington, had the same impression during his months in youth court, answering Camacho’s questions about how he was doing in school, how he was doing in sports, how the community service was going.

“I was always nervous,” Johnson said. “I did get down on myself. It just made me feel bad every day. He told me just to keep pushing. He was very supporting. He kept telling me that he knows I’m a good kid.”

Camacho reached out to Kevin Thorbourne, director of minority affairs for the Town of Huntington, and asked him to mentor Johnson and supervise his community service in Huntington Station.

Thorbourne, who takes high school kids to give out fliers to homeless people every week, said he was eager to help. He acknowledged that what Johnson did was “a harsh crime,” but he said he also saw someone with too much potential to discard.

At one recent youth court session, Camacho asked Chelsea, an 18-year-old with a robbery charge, how it was going in “boarding school,” his euphemism for inpatient drug treatment.

Before she could answer, a probation officer told Camacho that she had left and checked into a different facility. Chelsea explained that she felt staff at the first center didn’t address a problem she was having, so she got herself transferred.

“Good for you,” Camacho said. “You stood up for yourself and addressed the problem. You’re going to do well. What do you want to do?”

Chelsea replied, “I want to be a lawyer.” There was some laughter in the courtroom, but if Camacho heard it, he ignored it.

“You can do it,” Camacho told her. “You’re bright. It’s realistic.”

Then, with a tone of voice suggesting he expected attorneys to start taking notes, he spoke to the courtroom: “Any lawyers in the audience, if you need an intern or an assistant in a few weeks, her name is Chelsea.”

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