Al Sharpton called raising the age of criminal responsibility historic; Governor Cuomo called it a legacy achievement. Malcolm might have said, pertaining to raise the age, that we put too much cream in our coffee and are left with something less potent and watered down.
I spent five years working as the campaign manager for the Raise the Age statewide campaign. I remember walking into the offices of many legal defense shops in the city and being told it can’t be done and shouldn’t be done. Additionally, I recall building a movement that in five years would change New York State forever. As in all dramas, many friends became foes, and some friends became family. Many aligned themselves with power to say they got it done. The political structure in the state, with the IDC break-away Democrats, a Democrat caucusing with Republicans and many Democrats with diminishing zest, once again caused compromise on the backs of the Black, Brown and poor white children. All when we had the opportunity to not only be historic but also set a precedent that would revolutionize the face of incarceration in the state.
For those who do not know, New York is one of two states in the country that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The most recent numbers say that approximately 30,000 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults every year. When I started this work, the number was closer to 50,000. These young folks are automatically housed in adult jails and prisons. In NYC, a 16-year-old could call Rikers Island home for years, as Kalief Browder did, cycling in and out of solitary confinement, having his mind brutalized and body tortured by the culture of violence among staff and those incarcerated. Kalief took what was left of his life after returning to his mother’s home in the Bronx. His mother would die soon after Kalief, many believe literally from a broken heart. In New York State, there are thousands more like Kalief, or Denise, who gave birth while shackled in New York State at 17. Greene Prison in New York State has a high school and contains most of the 16- and 17-year-olds housed in adult prison in the state, a facility where the median age is 24 in a system where the median age is 34. These youths are growing up in prison. Greene was found to be more violent then Attica.
New York State was, and literally still is, eating and torturing its young, predominantly Black and Brown children, at least until next year for 16-year-olds and the following year for 17-year-olds when the legislation will be fully phased in.
This legislation moves all misdemeanors to family court, but leaves felonies in adult criminal court to remain or be removed to family court. The cases that remain will apply adult sentencing, and these young people will not benefit from this legislation. Those youths will eventually accompany the 18- and 19-year-olds that New York State is still destroying.
Raise the Age may contribute the much needed energy to the mayor of NYC’s announcement to close Rikers Island. Without drastically reducing the number of people in jail, we could face the creations of multiple Rikers Islands popping up throughout the city. Although these two victories prompt celebration, without the passage of speedy trial and bail reform we may be celebrating the Rikers victory a bit too early. My hope is also that raising the age will have implications on policing practices throughout the state known to target the youngest who are subject to adult prosecution.
While this change is a victory, something within me won’t allow me to celebrate. What I’ve learned is that for marginalized communities the power structure expects you to celebrate marginal wins, and many elected officials will begin the ceremony. However, the lesson for me is that we need to re-create what a victory means. A victory on anyone’s back and that leaves anyone out is probably not a true victory. It can be progress, but not victorious. This “win” will leave out youth who commit the most serious offenses, all youth will have to wait 10 years to have their records sealed and 18-19 year olds will see no change. These conditions are in a state budget that underfunded public education and housing while throwing money at developers and charter schools.
I am also reminded that my once 16-year-old older brother was incarcerated as an adult in New York State for a violent crime, and the only difference he would experience today is not going to a county jail with adults, at least not until he ages out of youth facilities. So although we raised the age, our consciousness and interconnectedness is still stifled by politics, as usual.
Our initial rallying cry remains the same, all kids all crimes. That is what raising the age right would look like. I recall a senator saying, “what we wanted to do here was simple, treat 16- and 17-year-olds as 15-year-olds.” While this sentiment is true, it is not so easy, because in New York State 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds can still be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes.
As I watched the victory tour on Raise the Age, I began to be insulted. Insulted by the fact that elected officials would lie and call a half victory historic. Insulted that Black and Brown communities are expected to quietly accept whatever crumbs the state throws at them while Republicans get more than their fair helping of the New York State resources. Then, I realized that more than insulting, it is criminal. Youth are being tortured, brutalized and murdered at the hands of New York State. So although we still think some 16- and 17-year-olds should be treated as adults for their “crimes,” who will hold the governor and the New York State legislature accountable for theirs?
“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.” —Malcolm X
My hope is that our perceived progress does not put us to bed.
Angelo R. Pinto
Senior Attorney | Ending the School House to Jailhouse Track & Justice Project