A group of local community leaders and children's advocates are calling on the state to raise the age for teen offenders to be tried as adults. The group is part of the statewide Raise the Age campaign.
New York is one of two states — North Carolina is the other — where 16-year-old offenders are tried as adults, unless the judge says otherwise. Group members say that they want the state to increase the threshold to 18.
Melanie Hartzog, executive director of Children's Defense Fund — New York, said at a press conference this morning at the Center for Youth on Monroe Avenue, that the state is needlessly saddling youth with criminal records before they finish high school.
Hartzog, who was one of several speakers, said that imprisoning young offenders doesn't improve public safety. Instead, the state is missing out on an opportunity to rehabilitate youth through alternatives available through the juvenile justice system, she said.
Elaine Spaull, a City Council member and executive director of the Center for Youth, said that an early incarceration in an adult facility makes it much more difficult for at-risk youth to get on a positive track.
Carlos Garcia, executive director of Partners in Restorative Initiatives, said that it makes more sense to invest in youth early, when they first start getting into trouble, than it does to put them through the adult criminal justice system. Helping youth to take responsibility for crimes to repair any harm they caused, or teaching them positive ways to resolve conflicts would have long term, positive benefits for society, Garcia said.
During the press conference, 20-year-old Kyle Chambers explained how, when he was 16, he served eight months in jail. He was able to continue school while incarcerated, he said, and the education was pretty good. But once he was out, he said that had trouble readjusting to large classrooms and found himself unable to go to school. He also became uncomfortable when people sat too close to him while he was eating, he said, and found himself always looking over his back.
Things have improved, he said during an interview after the press conference. He graduated from high school, and has a job doing janitorial work. He also feels safer in his environment, he said.
"Kids make mistakes, but that's no reason to throw them in jail," he said when he was at the podium.