Understanding youth justice in the big apple

They say New York is a ‘city so nice, they named it twice’, but is that the reality facing vulnerable young people in the city?

Meeting with members of the National Black Prosecutors Association
Meeting with members of the National Black Prosecutors Association

This week, I have had the opportunity to meet with members of the National Association of Black Prosecutors, I have watched cases go through the courts and met with senior professionals who work in the criminal justice system in NYC.  The opportunities to see the justice system in everyday action revealed stark differences between the way the UK works with vulnerable young people compared to that of the US. It has stressed the importance of both prevention services and early intervention programmes in reducing crime.

Until recently, New York and North Carolina were the only two states in the US that automatically prosecuted 16 and 17 year olds as adults,  which is all about to change thanks to the passing of Raise the Age. Until the change is in effect in October, however, a consequence is that young people who cannot raise enough funds for bail are held in an adult prison pre-trial – most likely in the notorious Rikers Island prison. The case of Kalief Browder, who spent 3 years at Rikers Island from the age of 16 with no trial or conviction and committed suicide upon his release, demonstrates the most severe outcomes of holding young people in adult prisons. Here in the UK, we have Youth Offending Institutions,  holding young people up to the age of 22, which focus on rehabilitation and education.

This research is not focused on the prison-industrial complex, the criminalisation of young people or America’s high incarceration rates, so you may be wondering what this blog is all about. But this week has highlighted to me just how important children’s services are in diverting young people from crime. Effective early help, good multi-agency working and access to public services, such as healthcare and housing, are all factors that reduce the risk of young people committing crimes, including gang activity and violence.

My research is split into two questions. Firstly, how do we identify young women and girls who are at risk of abuse in their relationships with gang members? Secondly, how do we ensure that young people who are being rehabilitated from gangs are supported  to change all abusive behaviours, so they don’t become adults who perpetrate abuse in their relationships? Over the next week, I will be learning a bit more about the programmes that young people can be referred into here, often given as an alternative to a custodial sentence.

One final reflection on my time in New York. This week I watched three cases in court; two were juveniles and one was a 24 year old. All were African American or Hispanic and all had been involved in ACS (children’s services). When I spoke with one defence lawyer, he confirmed my suspicion that these  two factors were common in a lot of cases. The UK is no better in this instance; the Laming Review found that half of the children in youth custody came from foster or residential care and ethnic minorities are over represented in our prison population.

The only way we can reduce the risk of young people offending is by having well run children’s services that are empowered (and funded) to work with families when issues arise early, preventing family breakdown and children entering the care system.

So whilst the New York tagline works well on a tourist advert, the realities faced by some young people across the city, is not quite as neat.


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