The court officers bring in "Megan" from an area behind the 7th floor Youth Part courtroom. Megan, who was 17 when arrested in February and whose name has been changed here (at the court's request), stands at a bench reserved for defendants and their lawyers. Incarcerated at Rikers Island since her arrest, she appears in court wearing a beige Department of Corrections jumpsuit, with her hands cuffed behind her back.
Megan allegedly used a lighter in the shape of a gun to commit a robbery, according to her mother, who spoke to a reporter after the hearing. The teen also has had a slew of behavioral problems, dating to when she was a toddler, not to mention prior arrests in family court.
Because she was 17 when arrested, Megan is considered an "adult." If convicted of the top charge she could face more than a decade in prison. She also would be left with a felony record that could diminish her future prospects, making her ineligible for certain jobs, public housing benefits and financial aid for higher education.
Megan is among the 45,000 teens between 16 and 18 arrested each year in New York, which is one of just two states to regularly treat criminal defendants aged 16 as adults. Thousands of those teens, like Megan, are held in Rikers Island until they can make bail. If sentenced, they face potentially lengthy sentences, in the same upstate prisons as older adults.
Now, a growing coalition of court officials, lawyers and advocates say that situation should be changed. They say that adolescents shouldn't be subject to adult sanctions, especially given that criminal records carry lifelong consequences. Being convicted of a crime can affect people's immigration status, educational and work opportunities, and even housing.
But so far, reforms have stalled in the state legislature due to opposition by some Republicans, as well as questions about the financial impact of the proposals.
Evolving ideas about young brains
Reformers say that New York's system hasn't kept pace with current research about adolescent development, which supports the idea that teens' brains are still developing and that they lack the impulse control of adults.
Even the Supreme Court said in 2005 that it's unconstitutional to execute people for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. Among other reasons, Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy cited juveniles' lack of maturity and susceptibility to peer pressure. "The character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult. The personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed," he said in the opinion.
The American Medical Association and other health groups backed the defendants in that case, arguing in a friend-of-the-court brief that people's brains continue to develop until their early 20s. specifically, they argued that the prefrontal corex—which is responsible for impulse control and moral reasoning—is the last part of the brain to develop.
Those who advocate for change also argue that teens shouldn't be saddled with criminal records for adolescent mistakes, and that it's counterproductive to sentence teenage defendants to facilities that house older, often more dangerous adults.
"I see every day the harm of the current state of the law, in which, literally, children are left with the indelible scar of a criminal record that will impact their ability to get employment, to pursue educational opportunities, to potentially remain in this country, to obtain housing," says Steven Banks, chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society, which is supporting reform.
"Judges are essentially operating with two hands tied behind their backs because they cannot order the kinds of rehabilitative services that 16- and 17-year-olds need."
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman jump-started the growing movement to revise New York's juvenile justice system in 2012, when he proposed creating a new "youth court," to handle cases of 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The proposal called for teens who were found guilty to be sentenced in accordance with family-court standards.
Unlike the situation in criminal court, family court judges are tasked with considering youngsters' best interests when crafting dispositions—which can range from adjournments in contemplation of dismissal to placement away from home through their 18th birthdays (or 21st birthdays for the most serious crimes). Family court sentences can also order counseling for teens or placement in facilities other than jails, like residential treatment centers. Importantly, family court sentences don't typically result in permanent court records.
"This proposal to raise the age is absurdly long overdue," says Randy Hertz, a vice dean at NYU Law. "It's crazy that New York is one of the two most punitive and regressive states in the country," says Hertz, who runs a clinic that represents juveniles in family court. (The only other state that sets 16 as the age of criminal responsibility in all cases is North Carolina.)
The status quo, he says, is "contrary to what any rational system seeks to do—not only in terms of rehabilitating kids and protecting them, but also in terms of protecting the public."
But, he adds, proposals such as Lippman's, which would only apply to young people convicted of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies, don't go far enough —especially because many people in that group already are able to avoid adult criminal records under the current hodgepodge of laws.
Artifact of the seventies
When New York opened its family courts in 1962, judges in those courts presided over all cases in which youngsters between the ages of 7 and 16 were accused of committing crimes. In the late 1970s, the state legislature changed the law to bring defendants as young as 13 into the adult court system if charged with murder, while defendants who were 14 or 15 would enter the adult system if charged with serious crimes, like armed robbery.
That system means that youngsters between the ages of 16 and 18 always go through the adult system, while those between 13 and 15 sometimes do so.
Around 5,000 of that group will spend time in adult jails or prisons, and some 2,000 will end up with permanent records.