'Stop Jailing 16-year-olds,' NY Policymakers Are Told


Hernan Carvente was 15 years and 363 days old when he was charged with attempted murder. If he had been charged two days later, on his 16th birthday, he says the trajectory of his life may have dramatically changed.

The Queens, NY-resident would have automatically been tried and sentenced as an adult.

Having just missed the cut, Carvente was sentenced to between two and six years in a secure juvenile facility that offered college-level classes. Five years later, he's a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Carvente, who spoke yesterday at a conference at the college entitled “Raise the Age: Turn the Page,” was among dozens of criminal justice advocates and practitioners who called for scrapping New York State policies that allow teenagers to be tried as adults.

New York is one of just two states (North Carolina is the other) that still process and prosecute all 16- and 17-year-old defendants in adult courts. Connecticut last year was among the most recent states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18.

Over the past several years, many state legislatures have accepted research evidence that shows there are distinct neurological differences between teens and adults, according to Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of New York City's Department of Corrections.

“The part of the brain that modulates pleasure-seeking develops before the part that modulates behavior,” Schiraldi said.

As a result, young people are more likely to take risks than adults, without considering consequences.

But because the adolescent brain is still developing, it's highly receptive to change, and as a result, teens respond well to certain interventions, according to Jennifer March, of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York.

“Teenagers do stupid and impulsive things at times, but because they're young, they have greater room to grow,” March told the conference.

About 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested in New York each year — the vast majority for minor crimes — and most are sent to adult facilities.

Once incarcerated with adults, teens are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, compared to those at juvenile facilities, and 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested after release.

But juvenile facilities aren't the only alternative for teens.

Kathleen Rice, the District Attorney for New York's Nassau County, touted the county's judicial diversion program, which sentences low-level offenders to community service, education or treatment programs.

“The goal is to prevent penetration into the system, to keep them in school,” said Rice, who is president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.

“The results we have seen in Nassau, have not only been a decrease in recidivism, but a decrease in the time each case takes.”

Rice noted that critics often point to the relative short-term costs of juvenile incarceration, which can be much more per inmate than typical adult facilities.

But, she added, it evens out when you consider the drop in recidivism.

“I think we as a society, not just here in New York, but across the nation, put a very cheap premium on long-term investment,” Rice said.

Carvente, who last summer checked in with some of the members of his former gang, has witnessed the difference between adult and juvenile incarceration.

He said many of his friends who were arrested after they turned 16 have struggled.

“They ended up going to Rikers (New York City's main jail complex), going through the adult system,” Carvente said in an interview after the conference.

“What would my life have been if I had gone there? I probably would have gone back to what I knew.”

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter @GrahamKates.

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