Last summer, 34 young New Yorkers fanned out across the city’s courtrooms to observe a combined 600 hours of youth court appearances. 

The aim: to evaluate the effects of the state’s historic Raise the Age legislation, which stopped the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, in New York City. 

The report by the Youth Justice Research Collaborative — a group of nonprofits and researchers, many of whom advocated for the 2017 measure — combined in-person detailed observations with a review of state and city data. 

“Clearly a lot of the things are working as intended,” said Kate Rubin, director of policy and strategic initiatives at Youth Represent, a member of the collaborative. Rubin cited lower rates of arrests, for one.

“They went down so much even before the law took effect, and then they kept going down. Detention is down … it’s what we hoped for.”

Racial Disparities, a ‘Dehumanizing Process’

Paid as researchers by the collaborative, the observers also saw where they felt the system still falls short, including persistent racial disparities, the overuse of detention, and treatment of children and their families in court.  

Maya Williams, an observer with the group, noted that while she was in the middle of her field study a state task force and the mayor released reports “praising the law and, and only glorifying its successes.”

“We were in the courtroom seeing the successes, but also seeing the things that need to be revised or the things that need to be added and modified, not just with the law itself, but the entire criminal justice system,” said Williams, who now works as a research assistant for the collaborative after receiving her master’s in public administration from John Jay College.

Maya Williams watched hours of family court proceedings for the report. Credit: Courtesy of Maya Williams

When Albany lawmakers passed Raise the Age, they finally took New York off the short list of U.S. states that still automatically prosecuted 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. 

Between October of 2018 to October 2019, 16-year-olds were the first age group to be folded into the family court system. During that time, arrests among 16-year-olds plummeted by more than 40%.

Yet racial disparities persisted; 93% of all youth arrests (meaning ages 7 to 17)  in New York City were of Black and Latino young people, according to the report, and 85% of those arrested were boys. 

For comparison, only about 60% of New York City’s children ages 7 to 15 were Black and Latino as of 2017

And though only slightly over half of the 16-year-olds charged in Family Court in New York City were held in a detention facility, 77% of those sent to detention had only been charged with a misdemeanor, according to a state Raise the Age task force report from last year that looked at October 2018 to March 2019, which was cited by YJRC.

Both the collaborative report and observers interviewed by THE CITY noted that many of the issues that persist in youth courts can’t always be seen in data — like when youth are handcuffed and surrounded in an intimidating way by multiple court officers for minor alleged infractions.

“Some youth are still being dehumanized,” said Williams. “It’s happening right in the court. Some youth are still not being treated as youth.”

Cameron Nicholas Bryan, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, said that the courtrooms he observed in Queens could be unnerving.  

“Seeing people like me being incarcerated … you just have a lot of empathy for the kids,” said Bryan. He noted the presence of up to four court officers in a small courtroom for teens. 

Cameron Nicholas Bryan outside of the Queens Family Court building in Jamaica, Sept. 11, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“One of the things that really had us mind boggling and that we witnessed a lot was court officers policing the youth [from] the hallway to the audience, to the stand,“ said Williams, who also witnessed as many officers surrounding arrested minors. 

“You see NYPD policing them as well as court officers. It just goes against the whole idea that these are children,” said Williams. “It puts it at whether the law believes they’re children or they’re not, because … sometimes it looked like prison, it looked like incarceration, and sometimes that can be happening to youth who are not even in cuffs yet.”

Using Detention as Substitute for Deeper Issues

The report also noted that “families must often endure significant time lost with multiple court dates, unreliable wait times, and unaccompanied sidebars where lawyers confer privately with the judge.” These are all issues the report says should be closely considered, as family presence “can impact the judge’s decision-making.” 

“I’m there more often than [families] are, and I still feel intimidated,” said Bryan, who, like Williams, mentioned the need for language interpreters for parents. “You can just imagine a parent who’s going through emotional distress.”

Among the report’s other highlights, observations revealed a “persistent reliance on detention” for children charged with more serious crimes despite extensive evidence a child was doing well at home.

Observers reported seeing instances where teens were sent to lockup as a means of keeping them housed — like when a court-watcher saw a judge “scolding the city because they mentioned it wasn’t their policy to find youth housing.” (“The city” could mean prosecutors from the Law Department and/or representatives from the Administration for Children’s Services.)

The judge was “concerned because it seemed the only options were to remand [detain] her, which he was hesitant to do because he had no reason to, or have her be homeless,” according to the report.

Rubin said relying on detention as housing underscores underlying societal issues that have gone unmet. 

“Almost every young person who is detained is detained because of a combination of a trail of failures by these different systems to meet people’s basic needs and address trauma.”

Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci countered that the report’s observation was “an incorrect statement of our work with youth who come to court without a release resource,” noting that the department has worked with attorneys and homeless youth shelters to find housing.

‘How Can I Join?’

Before her work observing for the collaborative, Kadiata Kaba, 21, hadn’t known about Raise the Age, she said. 

Kaba told THE CITY that she recently brought up her work to a friend who had just returned from state prison after being incarcerated in Rikers as a minor. 

“He said they felt neglected,” said Kaba. He hadn’t heard about the reform, but was enthused that people were paying attention to youth like him, and asked how he could take part. 

“‘How can I join?’” she recalled him asking. “Like, ‘this work is important and it needs to be done because there are so many things that are happening that nobody knows about.’” 

“Young people have so many great ideas,” said Kaba. “but if they aren’t giving the platform or resources to act on it those ideas would never be brought to light.”

Brooklyn Family Court on Jay Street, Aug. 25, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The collaborative continued observations until COVID-19 shut courthouse doors but plans to release further reports. Two weeks ago, the group also issued the results of a survey of juvenile defenders on how COVID-19 impacted the juvenile justice system. Lawyers cited increased barriers to successfully representing youth and other issues such as long wait times in detention and probation.

Paolucci, with the Law Department, argued that “the initial implementation of Raise the Age in NYC over the past two years has been a success” but said they “welcome the opportunity to work with the YJRC to address the issues raised in the report.”

State Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucien Chalfen said Raise the Age “was seamlessly implemented and has kept countless youths out of the adult criminal justice system and in the Family Court.”

He added, “How defendants are moved through the courthouse prior to being produced for arraignment is something the NYPD handles.”

Williams said her experience as the mother of a 6-year-old Black and Hispanic son also informed the nuance of her observations.  Sometimes she had to hide tears, she told THE CITY.

“It was so hard to not let them know I am here for you, especially the ones that may not have someone.”

She added: “That’s what pushes my passion for this even more, because my son is only 6 right now and it’s so much work that needs to be done. I can’t guarantee that that will be done by the time he’s of this age.”