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New York State begins reviewing its juvenile justice system


HOST INTRO: New York is one of only two states that require 16 and 17 year olds who commit crimes to be tried as adults. That may soon change. Governor Cuomo has announced a commission to review the State’s juvenile justice system. Raymond Bayor reports.

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AMBI: Kelvin Lazaro ordering pizza, fade under narration.

Kelvin Lazaro has is ordering a slice of pizza in a small restaurant in Patchogue, Long Island.

The Brooklyn native is a senior at nearby Saint Joseph’s College. At 25, he’s a little older than the average college student.

LAZARO: I’m happy that I’m in college, but I feel like I could have done this a long time ago, but I didn’t have the opportunity, considering I had to do in-patient for three years.

By ‘In-patient,’ Lazaro means the time he served at Rikers Island.

Lazaro’s first brush with the law was in 2003.

He was 14.

He was charged with criminal possession of a firearm, though he says it was not his gun.

He served two weeks in a Bronx juvenile detention facility.

In 2006 on his 17th birthday, he and his friends were arrested in a street fight between two rivaling gangs.

He was charged with violent assault, robbery and possession of firearm.

This time, he went to the Big House

LAZARO: They sent me to Rikers Island for fear that I might run away or not return to court.

ME: You were tried in an adult court the second time ?

LAZARO: Yes, as an adult, because I already had a history of violent crime.

And because of that history, the judge had very little flexibility to be lenient.

In the end Lazaro took a plea bargain.

LAZARO: I pleaded guilty instead of doing the maximum sentence. I ended up going to in-patient program for three years of my life. I had turned 18, and I couldn’t finish high school. I had to basically drop out. I couldn’t continue my education.

Since 1962, teenagers—16 and 17 year olds—have been tried as adults in New York State.

Last year, more than 30,000 of them. And more than 70 percent of them were Black and Latino.

Governor Cuomo’s new 17-member Commission has been tasked with providing concrete, actionable recommendations to change the state’s juvenile justice system.

Even before the commission holds its first meeting, advocates who want to change the law have launched a ‘Raise the Age Campaign.’

This is an ad from the campaign.

KIDS MUSIC: “Because I’m 16, I can’t get a cell phone contract…”

Angelou Pinto is the head of the ‘Raise the Age Campaign.’

He’s with the Correctional Association of New York, a group that advocates for a more humane justice system young people who commit crimes.

He says teens in the justice system need support more than punishment.

PINTO: They need a community-based alternative to incarceration that will not traumatize them, but will actually identify what trauma they may have that has caused them to get into the situation in the first place.

Pinto says cases like Lazaro’s raises some of the key issues young convicts face.

Many of them, Pinto says, get hardened from the time they’re in jail.

PINTO: Youth who come in contact with the system at 16 and 17 years old, end up becoming the individuals who come in contact and recycle or recidivate in and out of the system for long period of time in their lives.

Adding to the problem is many cant also find jobs.

Martin Guggenheim is a professor of law at NYU Law School.

GUGGENHEIM: they’re going to have an official record. It’s going to restrict their capacity for employment. They’re going to have to reenter into a community, after having being isolated in facilities that are not well designed for rehabilitation and reentry.

He says New York is the harshest state when it comes to juvenile justice in the nation.

He says judges will still need discretion when it comes to the moo  st serious crimes like murder, but the proposal to ‘raise the age’ is long overdue.

He also says there’s a reason not to keep young people in adult jails.

GUGGENHEIM: They’re going to be exposed to older and scarier people who’re more likely to be teaching the very lessons we wish they didn’t learn.

According to Guggenheim, a fair system has to take into account that teenagers’ brains are not fully formed.

Brain research shows that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that understands consequences isn’t fully developed until age 25.

GUGGENHEIM: the very parts of the brain that exacerbates the probability that children will make poor decision, will weight short-term gain over long-term costs, and will be far more inclined to engaging thrill-seeking is explainable by what part of their brain are fully developed and what part of their brain are yet to be developed.

Kelvin Lazaro, now 25, is exactly the kind of teenager the commission’s work may help though he got lucky in a way.

He did his three years and he changed his life.

No more guns or gangs.

Now it’s studying.

He’s majoring in criminal justice.

LAZARO: They never gave me the opportunity to show society what I’m capable of. So that’s what I’m doing now, because my actions are going to speak louder than words. And I want to be the one to help juveniles because when I was young, no one gave me the opportunity.

The commission will finish its work and issue recommendations at the end of the year.

Raymond Bayor , Columbia Radio news.

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