Why does New York still lock up 16-year-olds like they're adults?

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Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old high school student when he entered the adult prison system. Two weeks ago, at the age of 22, he died of suicide.

According to a state report released in January, there are around 800 16-and 17-year-old prisoners on any given day across New York, in local jails and state prisons. In 2013, more than 33,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested as adults, the Correctional Association says. New York and North Carolina are the only two states in the country where 16 and 17-year-old are tried as adults and sent to adult correctional facilities.

Advocates say these incarcerations can cause serious psychological and physical damage to teenagers. Non-profits, including the Correctional Association and the Gathering for Justice, are petitioning for changes that would mean no one under 18 would go through the same process as Browder, and instead would be directed to family court and then juvenile justice facilities.


“If [Kalief Browder] had gone to family court then he would have potentially gotten a diversion program or put on probation. Unfortunately, he went through the adult system,” said Carmen Perez, executive director of Gathering for Justice, which wrote an open letter to Governor Cuomo this week calling to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York.

Young adults are still physically developing up to the age of 25. This includes key areas of the brain related to risk and decision-making. Advocates like Perez say this makes it unfair to hold a teenager to the same standards as a fully-capable adult. The Supreme Court has considered this concept in a few different trials, and come out in favor of treating offenders under 18-years-old differently from their adult counterparts.

“When you expose these young people to adult facilities, they’re highly likely to be exposed to violence, experience violence, sexual abuse, trauma, as well as having a 36 percent higher rate of suicide than a young person who’s in a youth detention center receiving the services that they need,” Perez told Fusion.

Last year, a report from the U.S. Attorney looked specifically at how 16-to-18-year-old teenage boys were treated at Rikers in New York City. The prison is under scrutiny for substandard living conditions and a particularly virulent culture of violence. The review found, among other things, that “force is used against adolescents at an alarming rate and violent inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are commonplace, resulting in a striking number of serious injuries.”


Before Browder’s death, the New Yorker got a hold of prison security footage that showed the then-17-year-old being attacked by other prisoners and guards at Rikers Island.

“I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell,” Browder's lawyer, Paul V. Prestia told the Los Angeles Times soon after his suicide. “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time…those were direct contributing factors…That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him.”


State politicians have acknowledged the need for change. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had a "raise the age" proposal written into his budget plan, but the measures were dropped before the budget passed.

“Raising the age will fundamentally improve both our justice system and public safety—and with the funding to make it happen already set aside, it is imperative that the legislature pass this reform before the end of session,” Cuomo said in a statement in May. “By allowing the status quo to continue as is, we are relegating hundreds of teenagers each year—mostly young men of color—to an abusive prison environment that makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future.” Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.


In January, the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice concluded, following a one-year investigation, that New York should raise the age young people are treated as juveniles in the criminal justice system. Right now, there are two bills in the Senate and two bills in the assembly that would see juveniles under 18 do time in separate facilities from adults.

(Nearly 10 years ago, Connecticut began the process that eventually raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 after 17-year-old David Burgos hung himself in a prison. It was followed by similar efforts in other states.)


Today is the last official day of New York’s legislative session, and it seems unlikely the measures will pass. But in the context of controversies around Rikers and Browder’s death, the legislature might be forced to consider raising the age. Another bill introduced in the Senate, Kalief’s Law, aims to reduce the waiting time for trials.

Browder was never convicted of a crime. He did, however, spend three years in Rikers waiting for a court date, only to have the charges against him dismissed.