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Lawyers, Advocates Prod Albany for More Legal Protections for Kids Under Arrest

A broad coalition of groups plan to rally Dec. 15 for a proposed bill that would prevent cops from interrogating minors without counsel or taking them to a precinct without consulting parents first.

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Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, speaks at City Hall in 2019 in support of a bill to provide counsel to young people being interrogated by police.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 1989, the “Central Park Five,” a group of Black and Latino teens from Harlem, were wrongfully convicted of the rape and beating of a white woman after they gave false confessions to the police without lawyers present. 

Yusef Salaam, one of the Five who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly seven years, and other criminal justice activists are now pushing for a bill in Albany that would give minors more protections when questioned by police — citing at least 19 false confessions made by underage suspects since 1991.

“We were not sophisticated enough to truly understand what was going on,” Salaam, who was 15 when he underwent a grueling interrogation without counsel, told THE CITY this week.

Salaam, now 48 and considering a run for City Council next year, was exonerated along with the other members of the Five in 2002 after another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime while in prison

But the rules governing how law enforcement can interrogate children have largely remained the same in the 33 years since Salaam’s coerced “confession.” 

While police must read minors their Miranda rights — letting them know they can remain silent, ask for a lawyer and not incriminate themselves — many can’t understand what that actually means, according to defense lawyers who represent juvenile clients.

“What we know is that youth below the age of 18, particularly those youth that are most likely to come in contact with the justice system, simply lack the wherewithal to fully appreciate the nature of one’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent,” said Marty Feinman, who until recently ran the Legal Aid Society’s juvenile practice where he handled scores of cases involving underage confessions and is still working with the nonprofit public defender organization on the legislative push.

“It renders this right meaningless,” Feinman added, “because it’s being waived by someone who can’t appreciate what it means.” 

In some cases, cops bring in parents who are also unaware of what talking to the police could mean for a potential criminal case.

Additionally, police are officially allowed to lie and misrepresent information in an effort to coerce a confession. 

Under the proposed legislation, which is expected to be reintroduced in January, minors would be required to specifically speak with a lawyer before they waive their rights and speak to investigators. 

It would also mandate that officers make every effort to contact parents or guardians before a child can be moved from the scene of an arrest.

Best Interests?

The NYPD is opposed to the potential changes, noting that state law already requires officers to video-record every time cops question someone under the age of 18 in a court-approved juvenile room. The department also argues that parents, not lawyers, know what’s best for their children. 

“Parents and guardians are in the best position to make decisions for their children, and this bill, while well-intentioned, supplants the judgment of parents and guardians with an attorney who may never have met the individual,” a police spokesperson said in an unsigned email. 

Feinman, from Legal Aid, called the video recording requirement a “positive step” but noted that it doesn’t ensure that cops follow the required rules before the camera is turned on. For example: The false confessions in the Central Park jogger case were videotaped.

He and other advocates contend that parents themselves are often coerced and threatened by police who are trying to get their children to talk without a lawyer. 

Feinman called the NYPD’s argument “so specious as to be borderline dishonest” and argued that parents “are often unwittingly law enforcement’s secret weapon” for cops trying to get minors to talk without a lawyer. 

Research has shown that minors are primarily focused on what they feel is in their immediate best interest. Youths are also more likely to follow orders from older authority figures, experts say. “Decisions that they make are not intelligent decisions,” said Feinman, noting that youths also cannot drive, vote, or serve in the military. 

“These are kids who: the very notion of a ‘right’ is something alien to them,” he said. 

The NYPD also pushed back against the provision in the bill requiring officers to notify parents or guardians before taking a minor to the station house. 

“If a parent cannot be reached, police officers would be required to hold the juvenile in the street for the neighborhood to view them in police custody,” the NYPD spokesperson wrote. “This bill, while well-intentioned, does not actually serve the best interest of the juvenile arrestee and may actually harm those interests.” 

Not Remaining Silent

In a 2020 case reported by THE CITY, detectives continued questioning a Brooklyn teen without a lawyer present even after he verbally refused to waive his Miranda rights.

The boy spoke to his mother, however, and the cops present used that to their advantage. The boy later told his Legal Aid Society lawyer that he didn’t realize that what he was saying to his mother could be used against him.

Children’s rights advocates say that’s just one example of minors getting caught in a law enforcement web they don’t understand. 

Advocates have brought together a statewide coalition of some 60 juvenile justice organizations, public defenders, churches, elected officials and youth groups to launch the latest iteration of the “Right2RemainSilent” campaign. 

A rally for the proposed bill is scheduled for Dec. 15 outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem.  

The bill is sponsored by two Bronx Democrats, Assemblymember Latoya Joyner and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey. The proposed legislation was first introduced in 2020, but activists and policing experts hope this is the year it finally makes its way to the governor’s desk. 

“I always remain cautiously optimistic,” Bailey told THE CITY, noting the legislation was inspired by the Exonerated Five. “The pursuit of juvenile justice is something that is critical.” 

He added: “I want to be very clear: we don’t want to stop law enforcement from doing their job. But we also want to make sure that we are protecting young people who may not understand the gravity of the conversations and the situations that they might be in.”

Last year, the measure passed the Assembly 105 to 45, but it was never voted on in the Senate. 

Juvenile justice advocates note that other states like Washington and California have passed similar legislation the past couple of years. 

None of New York City’s five district attorneys have taken a public position on the legislation, including Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg who are often touted as criminal justice reformers (and chose not to comment for this article). 

Years Lost

For Jeffrey Deskovic, the proposed legislation is personal. 

At 16, he was convicted in the 1989 rape and murder of Angela Correa, a Peekskill High School classmate. The criminal case relied heavily on a confession he made to police without a lawyer or parent present. 

Deskovic later recanted but he spent 16 years in prison before new DNA evidence matched another man, Steven Cunningham, who later confessed. 

“As a 16-year-old being interrogated for a murder and rape which I did not commit I did not understand my rights,” Deskovic, who now works as an attorney who works to free wrongfully convicted people, told THE CITY. 

“The absence of this law ended up costing me 16 years in prison,” he added. 

A review of the case commissioned by the Westchester County DA’s office highlighted multiple flaws in the criminal justice system, including how cops used “troubling tactics” by taking advantage of his young age described as “psychological vulnerabilities.” 

Police also never contacted his mother during multiple interviews before his arrest. 

The proposed legislation comes as criminal justice reformers are now looking to push Gov. Kathy Hochul on a series of issues. Those include support for stalled legislation that would ease parole release restrictions for elderly people behind bars based on individualized assessments, and would streamline the sealing of criminal records that frequently make it difficult for individuals to move on with their lives. 

Further complicating the broad legislative push: some categories of crime, including incidents in the transit system, are up since the pandemic. 

Salaam and others note that arresting and convicting the wrong people with false confessions allows the real perpetrators to commit more crimes and makes everyone less safe. 

In the Central Park Five case, Reyes fatally stabbed Lourdes Gonzalez, a 24-year-old mother of three, months after his attack on the jogger in Central Park. 

“That young woman could have been alive today had the system worked,” Salaam said. 

“There shouldn’t be a question about the legislation,” he added, “It should absolutely be required.” 

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