A coalition of Buffalo-area organizations is joining a diverse statewide campaign that is calling on the state to stop treating juvenile offenders as adults when they enter the criminal justice system.
Members of local labor, religious and advocacy groups met outside the Erie County Holding Center on Tuesday to announce their support for Raise the Age N.Y., a public awareness campaign aimed at increasing the age of criminal responsibility in New York State.
According to organizers, New York is the only state, other than North Carolina, where 16- and 17-year-old offenders are prosecuted as adults and often wind up placed in adult jails and prisons.
“It is immoral to put kids in jail with adult offenders, one, for safety concerns and, two, because if the juvenile justice system is designed to rehabilitate, why would you put a child in a system based on punishment and not rehabilitation?” said Marvin Bing, former northeast regional director for the NAACP.
Bing, who helped lead a downstate effort to raise public awareness on the issue, was joined Tuesday by Buffalo Branch NAACP President Frank Mesiah and other local supporters, including Jim Anderson of Citizen Action of New York and Franchelle Hart, communications director 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Works East.
“We want folks to get engaged in the campaign and to reach out to their State Assembly and State Senate leaders, and also the governor, to tell them we support treating children like children,” said Hart.
She and other supporters argued that placing children in adult correctional facilities – where they are subject to violence and rape – also denies them age-appropriate treatment, such as opportunities for education, counseling and job-training that would redirect them away from committing crimes.
“The type of things that happen to them in this kind of setting only increases the likelihood that they will re-offend,” Hart said.
Bing said that of the 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in the state each year, 70 percent are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors.
Support for the Raise the Age N.Y. campaign has been growing. In Erie County, more than 2,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in 2010 alone, 69.4 percent of them for misdemeanors.
“We’ve been trying to raise the age for the last four years. The effort has grown to the point where there’s more diversity in the coalition, to the extent that it’s not a top-down campaign but one that has the full participation of various advocacy groups and civil rights organizations,” Bing said.
“Through all of these different voices, folks are starting to pay more attention to this issue. It’s not a soft-on-crime position, but a smart-on-crime position,” he added.