juvenile justice

Some Teen Detainees Still Treated Like Adults, or Worse, Despite ‘Raise The Age’

Police walk a teenager through the front door of the Bronx Hall of Justice on East 161st Street for an arraignment on Aug. 13, 2019.
Police walk a teenager through the front door of the Bronx Hall of Justice on East 161st Street for an arraignment on Aug. 13, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg /THE CITY

New York’s new “Raise the Age” law was designed to end the automatic prosecution of minors as adults and ensure that teens facing felony charges be processed by specially trained judges, separately from those 18 and older.

But according to data obtained by THE CITY, only 32% of eligible teens citywide were first seen in the newly created “youth part” of city courthouses between November and April.

Juvenile justice advocates say the limited use of the Raise the Age courtrooms shows a criminal justice system unprepared to keep pace with the law. Advocates and parents of arrested juveniles said they’ve seen young people face unintended consequences of the law, including:

• Long waits, sometimes days, in police custody

• Night-court appearances alongside adults — before having to go back to youth part the next day

• An inability to speak to legal counsel in private

• Forced walks in handcuffs and shackles through public courthouse entrances

“There are places where what is happening does not line up at all with the change in policies and with a change in goals,” said JoAnne Page, president of The Fortune Society, which works to provide reentry programs and alternatives to incarceration for New Yorkers.

A Separate Track for Kids

Before Raise the Age, which went into effect last October, 16- and 17-year-olds were treated as adults in New York’s criminal justice system. So far, just 16-year-olds are covered, but 17-year-olds will be added to the new youth part track this October.

Under Raise the Age, the state courts created a separate path for minors — called the “youth part” — in the Supreme Courts of the state’s counties. Those cases are supposed to be presided over by a judge trained in family law and adolescent development, who largely releases children back to Family Court.

The system is intended to divert kids from jail to social services, while giving prosecutors an opportunity to argue for keeping those charged with egregious offenses in adult court.

But police often take teens to arraignments on nights and weekends — when the juvenile court is not in session, criminal justice reformers said.

“I got five [youth] clients this week — all five were arraigned through night or weekend arraignments,” said attorney Robyn Goldberg of the Bronx Defenders’ Adolescent Defense Practice, who represents youths in The Bronx.

Office of Court Administration data obtained by THE CITY shows that youth arraigned in adult court at night are likelier to have bail set and be sent overnight to detention.

‘They Didn’t Take the Time’

Vincent Schiraldi, who was a senior advisor with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice when the Raise the Age bill was being crafted in 2014, noted the youth part concept came together hastily in Albany’s pressure cooker.

“They didn’t take the time,” said Schiraldi, now co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. “They didn’t have the time to listen to people. They were just sitting in rooms in the Capitol, kind of theorizing about what could happen.”

Deborah Rush, an attorney for Legal Aid’s Adolescent Practice in the Bronx, said that one father one night last week went to his child’s arraignment at midnight. But like many parents, he had to come back the following day once youth part was back in action.

“He worked a night shift and then had to come to court. He was falling asleep, the poor father, in the courtroom,” she said. “These poor parents have to [be there]. No one thought of that.”

A pending New York State bill would give night judges the ability to immediately refer a case to Family Court without the child needing to return the next morning for a youth part hearing. It’s awaiting Cuomo’s signature.

Big Problems in The Bronx

The courts’ lack of preparedness for the new youth arraignments are on stark display at Bronx Supreme Court.

Teens in The Bronx who do make it to arraignment at the youth part are publicly marched in, cuffed or shackled, right through the front doors, THE CITY found.

“Any kid that’s walked in during the day is perp-walked,” said Goldberg. “It’s traumatizing, it’s embarrassing.”

Once young people are in the building for arraignment, they are held by an arresting officer either on the front bench of the courtroom or in a small adjoining conference room — while adult suspects have a private booth in their holding cell area to talk with lawyers, THE CITY observed.

 Family court is located in the Bronx Criminal Court building (left), across the street from the Bronx County Hall of Justice (right), which houses the Supreme Court's "youth part."
Family court is located in the Bronx Criminal Court building (left), across the street from the Bronx County Hall of Justice (right), which houses the Supreme Court’s “youth part.” Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The new law requires juveniles to be out of sight and sound range of adult detainees, but there is no appropriate private space in the Bronx court.

“I can’t speak to them about the facts of the case because I have a detective sitting there. How is that part of Raise the Age?” Rush asked.

An additional issue is the long waits for vans to transfer detained children from holding cells in Criminal Court — which is just across the street. Lawyers say they have waited hours for a van to be backed out from one courthouse and right into the other.

“The building looks all nice and sleek but the reality is it’s just ill-suited for what it needs to accomplish,” said Peter Jones, attorney in charge of criminal practice for Bronx County’s Legal Aid Society. “There are a lot of infrastructure issues in terms of layout that impede the ability to get stuff done efficiently.”

One Father’s Long Wait

In July, a man sat on the scuffed wooden benches of the youth part in Bronx Supreme Court.

His leg shook with anxiety as he waited — for the third day in a row, he said — to see his teenage son arraigned there.

“These systems, they don’t work,” the man, who asked that his name not be used, told THE CITY in Spanish while waiting in court

According to court records, the man’s son was initially held at the local precinct for more than 24 hours before seeing a night court judge.

Both Legal Aid and Bronx Defenders told THE CITY that young people have had extremely long wait times between arrest and arraignment. The city has stated its goal as 24 hours for adults, but children are often being held in precincts for longer — as long as four days, according to defense attorneys.

When asked about the arrest-to-arraignment times for teens, the Office of Court Administration called it an “NYPD driven issue.” The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and the Department of Corrections referred inquiries to the Police Department.

“A juvenile’s, or really any defendant’s length of detention will be based on a variety of factors,” said Detective Sophia Mason, an NYPD spokesperson.

She added the department has been “working with its partners across the criminal justice system to determine whether there are alternative methods of transporting youth into the youth part.”

Page said the battle for reform didn’t end with the passage of the Raise the Age law.

“When you fight for system change first there’s all of the gearing up to get the change to happen,” said Page. “And then there needs to be enormous vigilance to make sure that the change really does happen.”

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