A resident of East Harlem used to be somewhat of a problem child. He was always running around and banging on cans and tapping on walls. His mother felt helpless. Finally, one of her neighbors suggested that she send her child to "drum school." She followed this advice. And the child grew up to become Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music.
There is a valuable lesson in this little story.
It is often the family and community that know best how to provide support and solutions for our "problem children." New York's Penal Law and related statutes, however, often undermine or fail to recognize the power of families to be effective, if not indispensable, partners in the solution.
New York is one of only two states in the nation (North Carolina is the other) that sets the age of criminal responsibility as low as 16. New York also tries children as young as 13 as adults when they are accused of the most serious crimes.
Trying youth as adults results in missed opportunities to lend support to families in their effort to overcome the challenges that lead to an arrest. In fact, the adult system does not give a family much of a say at any phase of the process. For example:
When 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested in New York, the law does not require the police to notify their parents or guardians, nor are the police required to notify parents or guardians about such youth's rights before questioning.
Since 16- and 17-year-olds in New York are considered adults in our criminal courts, they are not eligible for a juvenile/Family Court process called "adjustment." As part of this process, the probation department can meet with all parties involved in a case of delinquency, including the youth's family, and resolve the case without court intervention by connecting the youth and family to appropriate community services.
Furthermore, the sentencing authority of a criminal court judge is prescribed by the Penal Law and limited to sanctions which do not include access to therapeutic programmatic interventions available in the juvenile/Family Court. This means that if a criminal court judge wants to connect a youth to services that will empower the family to help the youth avoid future contact with the system, the judge is left to her own devices -- she must improvise and craft a disposition that specifically integrates participation in such services. Moreover, because of this lack of statutory authority, programs that offer these services and are willing to accept a youth and work with the family have no mechanism of financial reimbursement from the adult court.
New York's policy of trying children as adults leaves in its wake thousands of missed opportunities to productively partner with families, to ensure that our youth realize their full potential and avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system. In 2010 alone, 46,000 youths below the age of 18 were arrested and came into contact with our adult court system.
It is time that New York joins the rest of the nation and raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18. The story of "El Rey," our children, our families, and the American Dream demands no less.