State inaction is keeping youths on Rikers Island

State inaction is keeping youths on Rikers Island

State inaction is keeping youths on Rikers Island
December 30, 2015

The horrific conditions adolescents face on Rikers Island are well-documented.

A damning Justice Department report last year called for the removal of adolescents from Rikers, and their plight received further public attention with the suicide of Kalief Browder – a young man who entered Rikers at age 16 and spent three years awaiting trial in a case that was eventually dismissed.

Unfortunately, on Oct. 21, the city missed an opportunity to introduce a plan for the removal of minors from Rikers when a federal judge approved the settlement of a lawsuit brought by inmates and the Justice Department. While the city agreed to a series of improvements for adolescents on Rikers, it did not commit to removing minors from the island. Instead, the settlement agreement states that the city would make “best efforts” to identify an “alternative housing site” for 16- and 17-year-olds. Furthermore, the agreement leaves open the possibility that the city will keep housing minors on Rikers if it determines “that no suitable alternative site exists.”

Indeed, a suitable alternative site for 16 and 17-year olds does exist and has not been used, owing to an archaic state legislative scheme. Currently, the city has 154 empty beds in its two secure juvenile facilities: Crossroads and Horizons. These two facilities have been rapidly emptying thanks to a decline in crime and smart juvenile justice policies. Indeed, data published by the New York City Administration for Children's Services shows that in January of 2012 there were close to 200 youths in the two facilities. Since then, there has been a consistent and steady decline in the number of residents – to 94, as of September 2015.

So why is city taxpayer money being wasted for empty beds that could instead provide a safer solution for 16- and 17-year-olds on Rikers Island? The answer lies in New York state’s age of criminal responsibility, which is set at 16 – an anomaly in the U.S., where the vast majority of states set the age at 18. Accordingly, in New York, a 16-year old’s pre-trial detention location depends on the date the alleged crime took place. If it took place before the youth’s 16th birthday, he will be under the jurisdiction of the Family Court and held in a juvenile facility. If the alleged crime took place after the youth’s 16th birthday, he will be under the jurisdiction of the criminal court, and held in an adult jail like Rikers.

In order to comply with federal standards that prohibit holding “juveniles” with adults, the city cannot hold a 16-year-old who is under the jurisdiction of the Family Court in the same facility with a 16-year-old under the jurisdiction of the “adult” criminal court.

Nevertheless, in order to use the empty juvenile beds for the benefit of

youths on Rikers Island, the city cannot and should not wait for the New York state Legislature to raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility. Albany has failed to act on this issue repeatedly during the last five years. The state Legislature did not vote on a 2011 “raise the age” proposal by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and more recently failed to vote on a raise the age proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Instead, the city could house all of the 94 youths at Crossroads and Horizons in one of these 124-bed facilities. The remaining facility would be solely designated to house 16- and 17-year-olds currently held on Rikers Island. While residents in the latter facility would technically be under the custody of the adult correctional authority, it will maintain the current standard of care and programming, and keep staff that is trained in working with minors.

Utilizing the extra space at Crossroads and Horizons would drastically reduce the population of 16- and 17-year-olds on Rikers – 254 as of September of 2014 – by half, focusing the city’s search for an alternative to Rikers on a much smaller group.

It will go a long way towards preventing another tragedy for youth at our city’s notorious jail complex.

Yuval Sheer is an attorney and the former deputy director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice.