A study finds that the Raise the Age policy shift has had an impact, but the pool of kids being arrested has grown even more Black and Latino, El Diario reports.

Mariela Lombard

Vidal Guzmán, of Dominican origin, experienced NYC’s criminal justice system first-hand when he was still a boy.

This article originally appeared in El Diario.

Translated by Carlos Rodriguez from Spanish.

Two years after the Raise the Age law took effect, preventing minors 16 and 17 years of age from being automatically charged as adults, youth arrests in the city have dropped more than 40 percent. Still, the fact that 93 percent of the youth arrests were of kids of color is a cause for concern, a research group says.

In an investigation conducted by the Youth Justice Research Collaborative (YJRC) in partnership with universities and non-profits, observers were sent to 473 courts between June and the end of September 2019 to watch the proceedings of youths between the ages of 16 and 17 belonging to these ethnic groups. They detected that “racial disparity persists” overwhelmingly in New York City.

“Nearly all youth arrested in New York City were Black (61 percent) or Latinx (32 percent), and the vast majority were male (85 percent),” the report finds. “Communities of color in New York City are still over-policed.”

“In their homes, schools, and streets, 16- and 17-year-olds of color are exposed to ubiquitous police surveillance and frequent police contact in ways that, even if unrealized, make arrest a persistent possibility,” states the report, which was based on more than 600 hours of juvenile- and family-court watching.

Kate Rubin, YJRC’s director of policy and strategic initiatives, says that, “evidently, many things are working as planned, as child and youth arrest rates had begun to drop significantly even before the law took effect.”

Rubin’s concern, however, is that the report also confirms that the criminal justice system is still “falling short” to offer these groups a more humane treatment, not only with regards to the “evident racial disparities” but for the excessive use of arrests and the poor treatment families receive in court. 

In the streets, some have a different perspective. Vidal Guzmán, of Dominican origin, was 13 when he first endured the effects of a “contact” with the New York Police Department (NYPD.) It all began when he and a group of neighborhood friends were arrested. That was the start of a tangled web of problems with the law that continue to affect his life. 

“The system continues to be geared towards persecuting our kids of color. We see it clearly in the response the police had to the Black Lives Matter protests. They have their sights set on Hispanics and Blacks. And I am not the one saying it: All stop-and-frisk statistics, which has supposedly been eliminated, confirm it,” says the activist for non-profit organization JLUSA, which fights to reduce the prison population.

Today, Vidal is 24 and keeps an eye what goes on in neighborhoods like Harlem, where he grew up knowing about dozens of children and teens who ended up in the criminal-justice system for different reasons.

“I think what happens with the poorest young people in our neighborhoods has been plainly described: The system continues to punish them so can they never get back up. We need to work harder so they can have a right to a second chance if they made a mistake when they were young,” he says.

Since October 1, 2018, when the law took effect, offenders younger than 17 are no longer arrested and charged as adults. Also, all inmates under 18 who were imprisoned at Rikers Island were transferred to the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in The Bronx, which is managed by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS.)

When he was younger, Salvadoran-born Javier Luna, now 19, was arrested for cocaine possession in Queens. He says that the criminal-justice system treated him as if he was “the most dangerous drug trafficker in the world.” Despite his age, he saw how rough prison life can be. Today he is free, but he admits that he does not see many options for his future. 

“When I learned about the rule preventing children to be processed as adults, I was so happy for the thousands of kids who get into trouble for not keeping their head straight and for many reasons. Now the system is supposed to give them other opportunities,” says Javier, who says he has been scarred by his detention and his interaction with the law, citing as an example the difficulties in finding “a decent job.”

After over a century of charging 16- and 17-years-olds as adults in New York’s criminal justice system, the legal spirit of the Raise the Age law paves the way to “build” a new system for youths. 

Under this law, adolescent offenders are supposed to have access to age-appropriate services and programs designed to promote their rehabilitation. Yet, organizations who have evaluated its outcome during the first year state that the treatment the youths receive during their process continues to be “dehumanizing.”