Update: On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed a law that will prevent 16- and 17-year-olds in the state from automatically being charged as adults, no matter what crime they're accused of.
In the spring of 2016, Refinery29 accompanied a coalition of mothers, activists, and lobbyists as they let elected officials know how the practice of charging teenagers as adults damages lives. Ahead, a look into the experiences of some of the mothers who led the "Raise the Age" fight in the state of New York.
This story was originally published on May 13, 2016.
“I just want to start from, I guess, what happened at the end,” Alicia Barraza said softly into the microphone. “On October 30 of 2014, we lost our 21-year-old son when he took his own life at Fishkill Correctional Facility.”
Standing at the podium of a press conference at the state capital in Albany, NY, just two days after Mother’s Day, Barraza said that she believed New York’s practice of charging teenagers as adults helped lead to her son’s death.
“I think that if Ben had not been charged as an adult, he might very well be alive today,” she said.
Barraza is one of 45 mothers, activists, and lobbyists who joined the Correctional Association of New York and the nonprofit, Families Together, in Albany in hopes of persuading legislators to raise the age at which children are tried as adults. Refinery29 accompanied the group on its mission to tell elected officials how the policy had affected their own families.
“There’s probably no more powerful voice [than a mother's voice],” Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, explained. “To have the voices of mothers who literally carried and gave birth and raised children who are now subjected to horrible abuses at the hands of the state, is a very important part of the advocacy work.”
New York is one of two states where 16-year-olds are automatically tried as adults, the other being North Carolina. That means that, anyone over that age, if arrested, will be sent through the adult court system. It means that if they are found guilty, they will be sent to adult facilities, where they will be housed with grown men and women. It means that once they are released, their criminal records will not sealed and will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Across the country, there are an estimated 10,000 minors in adult facilities on any given day, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Seven states consider 17-year-olds as adults in criminal justice proceedings. All 50 states allow juveniles to be transferred to adult court under certain conditions, often in regard to factors such as the seriousness of the crime. As of 2014, 22 states had at least one provision that allowed juveniles to be transferred to adult court without a minimum age requirement.
Barraza's son, Ben Van Zandt, was only 17 years old in 2010, when his then-undiagnosed mental illness led him to set a fire in an empty home while the family was away on vacation. The house was nearly destroyed. He was arrested, and because he was considered an adult, his parents weren’t allowed to accompany him to the precinct. Within two hours, Van Zandt had signed a confession, apparently in the belief that the authorities would then help him with his mental health issues. He was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison and placed in an adult facility.
Over the next few years, Van Zandt was moved from facility to facility, given inconsistent access to treatment for his depression and psychosis, and sexually assaulted, according to his mother. After being accused of fighting with another prisoner in 2014, he was sent to solitary confinement. Van Zandt committed suicide shortly after.
Van Zandt's parents have since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the New York State Office of Mental Health and State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, alleging "inadequate, improper, and unsafe" medical care and supervision. Both organizations declined to comment on the lawsuit to Refinery29, citing laws regarding patient privacy, and stating that it was policy not to comment on pending litigation.
Ben's story highlights the risks faced by youth who are sent to adult prisons and jails. According to a 2009 report from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, youth incarcerated in such facilities are at the highest risk of sexual assault. “Research consistently shows that youthful prisoners who lack the experience and knowledge to cope with the volatile, predatory environment common in prisons and jails are at greater risk for sexual abuse while housed there,” the report found.
Jeanette Bocanegra points out the irony of the situation. Her son, Jahpower, spent two years in a juvenile detention and four years in an adult facility after his arrest at age 14. She calls it the worst nightmare a parent can go through. “My son was exposed to gang violence, abuse from correction officers,” she said. “Some of the things that he experienced, at the hands of the ones supposed to care for him, for [his] safety, were things that, if I as a parent were to do to my son, I would be arrested.”
It doesn't have to be that way. Ten years ago, Connecticut was another state that automatically tried 16-year-olds as adults. But in 2007, legislators voted to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state to a more standard 18, phasing in the implementation over the next five years. From 2010 to 2012, the period that 16-year-olds began to be automatically tried in juvenile courts rather than adult courts, arrests of minors dropped significantly and the state's spending on juvenile justice was $2 million less than it had been ten years before. The change has been so successful that the state is now considering raising the age even further, to 21.
In New York, state legislators are split on how to deal with the issue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo supports raising the age, and included funding for this effort in his proposed 2016 budget. But a bill on the matter introduced for the 2015-2016 legislative session was criticized by legislators over practicality of implementation, including how it would burden juvenile court systems and facilities. A similar bill in the previous legislative session failed.
In a statement to Refinery29, New York State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, chair of the Senate's Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, said that, though legislators had been unable to reach an agreement on raising the age of criminal responsibility, the conversation should continue. "We must also continue to work to identify the best means to reduce recidivism and [make sure] that sufficient resources and programs are available to do so," the statement concluded. A spokesman for the Republican lawmaker declined to share any official stance on raising the age of criminal responsibility.
Bocanegra is one of the “lucky” ones — her son was released in January, and has been trying to rebuild his life after spending his 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays in an adult prison. But the adjustment has been hard. “It took me a long time to even sleep a full night, because I would wake up and I would just go in his room and see him there,” she said. “I felt guilty that I couldn’t be that mom to protect him.”
Both mothers emphasize the same thing: What happened to their child could happen to anybody. “We never thought that something like this would happen to our own son,” said Barraza. She wants to remind legislators that, should their children be involved in crime, they’re not immune.
Bocanegra agrees. “If it was their kid, is this good enough for your kid?” she wants to know.