For years as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, NY, I prosecuted some of the city's most dangerous and violent criminals. These were people with extensive criminal histories who were often a serious threat to others around them and who deserved prison time because of their criminal acts. At least that's what the papers in their files told me. The frequent reality when I walked into the courtroom, however, was that I was just as likely to find myself staring at a pimple-faced teenager as I was to see a hardened criminal of several years my senior.
The first few times I experienced this, I wondered, "How could this be? Surely, they must be in the wrong courtroom. This isn't family court for juveniles. This is for adults."
Turns out I was wrong.
Currently, New York State is one of two remaining states in the US who automatically prosecute young people at 16 and 17 years of age as adults, regardless of the offense they are charged with. Conventional wisdom aside, this practice has resulted in an average of 50,000 16 and 17-year-old children who are tried, as adults--even where they are accused of less serious crimes, like misdemeanors. The problem doesn't just stop there, however. If convicted, these adolescents are housed in correctional facilities with real adult criminals doing hard time. This only furthers a downward spiral that commonly results in a young person being housed separately in solitary confinement where their social development is further impeded (and, their likelihood of suicide increases exponentially). The other possible outcome is that they are placed in general population and exposed to other abuses like sexual assault or just made into "smarter" criminals, increasing their likelihood of recidivism.
Beyond the issue of where they are housed once convicted, the real problem is that young people of that age should not automatically be on trial as adults in the first place. As a teenager, I made more than my fair share of mistakes. Some may have flirted with the lines of legality, but nearly all crossed the boundaries of stupidity and poor judgment. Now that I can safely reflect as a real adult (outside the bounds of the statute of limitations, of course) I know that I am hardly alone in that regard. It's a scary thought to wonder how differently things might have played out had I been unlucky and gotten caught in some of my dumber actions. The same is true for many of the children dealing with criminal cases as adults now. By automatically prosecuting children as adults, we make it increasingly difficult for that young person to get closer to their own dreams -- some of which have not even yet been imagined -- due to little more than the mistakes of their youth.
Black prosecutors, and particularly those who work in communities of color, face unique challenges that many of our colleagues do not understand. We are often called to delicately balance notions of right v. wrong and the desire for safer communities while still maintaining our world perspective as Black people. This perspective is shaped by our interactions and experiences in a world where law enforcement is not always friendly and things are not always fair. When you know how ugly the system can be, it is even more of a challenge to see face after face of Black and Latino males spending their youth being tried as adults when they should be somewhere attending their proms or playing Xbox.
With New York State fashioning itself as progressive on most issues, it boggles my mind how 48 other states, including notoriously conservative ones, have no problem with the minimum age for adult prosecution being 18, while we New Yorkers have yet to get this right. Seriously? Ethan Couch catches "affluenza", kills four people while driving drunk in Texas and ends up being sentenced to probation and a cushy stay at a country club for juvenile reform while in New York two high school kids who have a fight afterschool would be automatically tried as adults?
Recently, newly elected Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson made the proper call in declaring that he supported the movement to raise the age. More elected officials have heard the public's outcry with countless juvenile justice youth advocacy groups like the Campaign for Youth Justice who have called for New York's State legislature to make raising the age a legislative priority. The final push needs to come from Gov. Cuomo himself. In his State of the State address today, Gov. Cuomo briefly mentioned the issue of raising the age and expressed that he wants to see the law change this year. Hopefully this issue will remain a significant priority as he continues to advance his legislative agenda.
Under his administration, New York's criminal justice system continues to make strides in the right direction but this is an important area that needs his support. I will be the first to concede that there are certainly cases where the offenses offenses are so grave and act so deliberate that to not prosecute the defender as an adult -- regardless of age -- would be a miscarriage of justice. But, assuming that a 16-year-old should be tried as an adult isn't being tough on crime; rather, allowing judges and prosecutors the discretion to make that decision is simply common sense.
New York, it's time to raise the age.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King's County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and a federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. Follow him on Twitter: @CFColemanJr