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Note from FTNYS Policy Staff: Thanks to growing momentum and support for the Raise the Age New York public awareness campaign, Governor Andrew Cuomo has joined the movement, announcing the formation of  the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, set to deliver recommendations on how to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York to 18, by December 31, 2013. And although Families Together in New York State celebrates this hard-fought milestone,  we recognize that our work is only getting started. By next year's end, the commission will deliver recommendations that will likely shape new bill language for comprehensive reform. Our job now is to build on the momentum of the campaign, continue to generate support for reform in the Senate and Assembly, inform and influence the commission from the perspective of families, and ensure that the spirit of the reform focuses on  developmentally appropriate approaches to rehabilitation. Our testimony at the Joint Legislative Public Hearing on Public Protection reflects this thinking by focusing on the families stories that inspired this movement, recounting the tragedies of a criminal justice system often too eager to write-off our state's children, our future. Please view and share the testimony, FTNYS Public Protection Hearing Feb 5 2014.

Joint Legislative Public Hearing on 2014-2015 Executive Budget Proposal 
Committee on Public Protection 
February 5, 2014 
Presented by Paige Pierce 
Executive Director 
Families Together in New York State 


My name is Paige Pierce. As the Executive Director for Families Together in NY State, a non-profit, family-run organization whose mission is to provide a unified voice for families of children and youth with social, emotional and behavioral challenges, I represent thousands of families across the state. As such, I have dedicated my career to advocating for children with mental health and other cross-systems challenges. As you can imagine, I've heard many heart breaking stories over the years related to children suffering needlessly while their parents and loved ones attempt to straddle our various and disjointed service systems. Such accounts fuel our work every day at Families Together to provide better and do better by our children.   It is with this in mind that I sincerely thank Chairs Nozzolio and Lentol and committee members for allowing me the opportunity to share our grave concerns about the current state of our juvenile justice system and a movement afoot to better serve our children. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Senator Nozzolio and Assemblymember Lentol for the leadership they've shown in introducing Raise the Age legislation in their respective houses.


As you may be aware, New York State is only one of two states that continue to process, prosecute and incarcerate 16 and 17 year olds as adults. Such a practice is contrary to all emerging evidence. I could spend the time you've allowed me today, talking at great length about the science that clearly shows teenage brains have yet to fully develop, impeding their seat of reasoning and thus their biological ability to fully comprehend the impact of their actions. I could point to numerous cost benefit analysis's, valuation assessments, and charts in the form of a pie, bar and/or graph that depict our system as cost burdensome. And I could certainly walk you through an ever widening breadth of research that illustrates the inherently flawed theory that a highly punitive model of juvenile justice is effective. However, I suspect many of my colleagues will impart detailed accounts of the scientific advances, crunched numbers and state by state comparison studies. Instead, I want to share with you, several family portraits, all of which have been forever altered.


I would first introduce you to Daniel (all names have been altered for purposes of confidentiality). In many respects, Daniel was similar to that of most teenage boys. He enjoyed spending hours at a time playing video games, socializing with friends and playing his favorite sport of basketball. In some respects Daniel was a bit different than most teenage boys, as he was suffering from and trying to manage the symptoms of a mental illness; a hand twenty percent of our population is dealt...it's the luck of the draw and as such, he could be my son, your son, a nephew, or close family friend. He could be white, black, or Latino. He could also, be in a safe space today, but he's not. His life trajectory was forever altered because when he was 16 years old, he was arrested for stealing Chinese food from a delivery car; a choice made under the pressure of his peers and one that would find him in an unimaginable situation. The official charge was that of robbery and because he was 16 years old, he was prosecuted as an adult and thereby sent to an adult facility; the consequences of such have been devastating.  


Congressional findings reported in the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act that "juveniles were five times as likely to be sexually assaulted in adult facilities rather than juvenile facilities, often within their first 48 hours." Daniel unfortunately became such a statistic. While in custody, he was raped by a fellow inmate. The impact of such event (referred to by Daniel as the day the demons hurt him), have had lasting effects and though he's since been released, he continues to suffer from severe and debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Had Daniel committed his crime in a neighboring state his life course could have been drastically different. Perhaps he would be nearing the end of his college experience, looking forward to embarking on a career path that would lead him down a path to productive citizenship.


The next boy I would introduce you to is James. At the tender age of 5, James had already struggled for years with anxiety and other symptoms that would later be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. He would later also be diagnosed with diabetes. Despite recommendations by Early Intervention Services, he was placed in a mainstream kindergarten class, with disastrous results. His first 5 day suspension occurred within 2 weeks of starting school.   There were, sadly, many more to follow. At about age 8, James's anxiety level was so high that a simple trip to the dentist resulted in him being placed in a strait jacket (over the objections of his mother) to receive treatment for an abscessed tooth.  


The anxiety fueled incidents continued throughout James's years at school. He was often bullied and ostracized by his peers. His teachers and school administrators were often no more welcoming than his school mates. None seemed to understand his behaviors within the context of his diagnosis. He was, generally, instead labeled as a problem, different, or worse.   As James reached puberty he was becoming more and more isolated. At age 15, just as puberty was setting in, James became very distraught upon discovering two of his classroom aides, his social worker, and his favorite teacher would not be returning to school the next year due to budget cuts.   At the same time, he lost his only friend. His Mother alerted school administrators that her son was in a heightened state of distress and would benefit from additional supports - none were granted. A week later, he was bullied by older students in his shop class...he responded with a verbal threat. Despite the fact that his one on one aide witnessed and testified to the fact that James did not instigate the incident, he was the one suspended...this time for a period of 1.5 years.   The young men involved in the bullying incident were sent back to class the same day!   Thus, his isolation reached new depths. He was not permitted to participate in any school events or even step foot on school property. His only interaction beyond that of his immediate family was with his tutor for 3 hours per day.

Noticing the toll this was taking on her son, James's mother attempted to identify a placement for him into a treatment facility where his mental health could be stabilized.   His therapist supported the idea and was prepared to fill out the necessary paperwork for him to be treated at the adolescent inpatient program at Rochester Psychiatric Center.   Unfortunately they closed before he could receive treatment.


Most recently, at age 17 he developed a fetish.   He likes women's shoes.   As a result, he entered a local work out gym, after hours, and stole a pair of women's shoes.   He did this several times.   While the police did not have hard evidence, he was the prime suspect. James, recognizing his need for treatment confessed.   He was charged as an adult (despite the option to charge him as a youthful offender) with multiple felonies and bail was set at $5000. He was remanded into custody in October, 2012.   Upon arrival, he was immediately taken off all his medications and placed on a diabetic diet and provided with insulin only once per day instead of the


recommended dosage of his own treating professional.   Three days later he was hospitalized for excessive vomiting and diabetic ketosis.   His mother tirelessly advocated on his behalf, writing letters to his judge related to his Asperger's Syndrome and requesting bail be lifted and he be placed on house arrest instead. Her requests were denied. She also wrote to and subsequently met with the jail administrators to discuss his diabetes management; even offering a physician led in-service diabetes management program.   Such offer was ignored. James was instead put in isolation an appropriate insulin management regimen was never put in effect. His mother feared for his safety and wellbeing while he awaited sentencing. At this stage James was a scant 87 pounds; she feared what would become of him should he be sentenced to time in an adult facility.

The judge in for the matter recognized he would not be an appropriate candidate for state prison though he was not ordered to the inpatient treatment he so obviously needed, he remained in county jail for four months.   James was ultimately sentenced to time served (a total of 4 months in jail), 5 years' probation and a fine. It was also agreed that in exchange for his admission of guilt, he would be convicted as a youthful offender.


But for this Judge, James would have faced time in an adult facility where the statistical probability suggests he would have been prey for more mature inmates. But for this Judge, James maintains the ability to obtain future employment or perhaps even student financial aid. James's challenges, will, in all likelihood, continue to test him, but because of one Judge, his path was without doubt, forever, positively altered.  

Like James's mother, Frederick's mother lives in fear. Her son turned 16 on January 31st of this year, a date she's dreaded for quite some time. Frederick, you see, has struggled since the age of five, with symptoms that would later be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. In addition, Frederick suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bi-polor Disorder and Operational Defiant Disorder; a dangerous combination of issues that impairs his coping skills, ignites a heightened level of anger and clouds his sense of judgment even beyond that of a so called "normal" teen.

As a result of an act of property destruction, Frederick has already had one brush with the law resulting in probation. As you can imagine, he's had a difficult time maintaining the conditions of his probation. Should he falter now that he's 16, he very well could end up in an adult facility where teens are routinely victimized at the hands of older inmates.


Earlier this fall, Governor Cuomo signed legislation prohibiting pharmacies and stores from selling certain over-the-counter medications to individuals under the age of 18, similar to that of statutes deeming individuals too irresponsible to enter into service of country until the age of 18, too young to understand the health risks associated with smoking tobacco until the age of 18, and too immature to handle the consequences of alcohol consumption until the age of 21. All such policies, sharing the common denominator and premise that youth are not developmentally mature and yet, we've continued to be an outlier in the manner in which we process, prosecute and incarcerate youths as adults. We can do better.


The time has come to reconstruct our justice system to one that is developmentally appropriate, driven by evidence, carefully considers the intersecting systems of care (such as mental health, substance abuse, education and corrections), and examines the costs (both human and financial).   The time has come, to be smart on crime. Thank you.


Families Together is a non-profit, family-run organization that strives to establish a unified voice for families of children and youth with social, emotional and behavioral challenges. Our mission is to ensure that every family has access to needed information, support and services.   

Brad Hansen, Public Policy Coordinator

Families Together in New York State, Inc.