Some college students get part-time jobs waiting tables or in the campus library. Recent Lehman College graduate Kadiata Kaba had a more focused vision for her junior year: On behalf of her community and the young people she grew up with in Brooklyn, over the past year, the 21-year-old sat in New York City’s delinquency and criminal courts for hours each day.
Until the coronavirus pandemic prompted unprecedented court closures in the spring, the political science and African American studies major joined 33 other students and professionals paid to monitor how judges, attorneys, court officers and the law itself treat teens accused of crimes.
“I’ve seen my peers and even some of my friends get thrown into jail at a very young age, and they were treated as adults,” said Kaba, who is court-watching for the Youth Justice Research Collaborative, a partnership between the City University of New York’s Public Science Project and advocacy groups monitoring a major new youth justice reform law known as Raise the Age. “They weren’t really adults, and they didn’t even really see them as adults. But once they were alleged of committing a crime, the law automatically treated them as adult criminals.”
Signed into law in 2017 by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Raise the Age inched the state into modernity, making it one of the last to lift its age of automatic adult criminal responsibility to 18. Last year, North Carolina became the final state in America to stop automatically trying 16-year-olds as adults.
There are three remaining states that still try 17-year-olds as adults.
One of the three is Wisconsin, where Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, will be tried as an adult since his Aug. 26 arrest. Rittenhouse is accused of fatally shooting two adults and severely injuring a third during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African American man.
By contrast, as of last October, all 16- and 17-year-old New Yorkers were spared from serving time in adult correction facilities, regardless of their alleged crime. Their cases were heard in youth-focused courtrooms, like the ones Kaba monitored over much of this past year.
Kate Rubin, director of policy and strategic initiatives at Youth Represent, which provides legal services and advocacy for justice-involved youth, helped run the court watch program and described the need for it.
“We knew there would be plenty of data collected on Raise the Age, but we also knew there would be a lot about young people’s experiences that would be impossible to measure in data alone,” Robin said. “We wanted to be there to see what practices look like and how young people are treated.”
The reform is considered to be New York’s most significant overhaul of juvenile justice in a generation, following decades of tragedy, litigation and federal investigations involving teens in both adult and juvenile detention facilities.
“Most of the time when a law is passed, people think that is it,” said Kaba, who received training in the juvenile justice system and received attorney-guided tours of the courts before beginning her observation period in May 2019. “There’s so much more work to do – and that’s what I’ve learned by going to court and following Raise the Age.”
Last week, two years into the reform’s implementation, the Youth Justice Research Collaborative released the initial findings of its court watch project. The initial report was based on four months and 400 hours of observation from monitors like Kaba, who filled up notebooks with pages of her detailed observations.
As context, the report highlights how racial disparities in arrests have barely budged: 93% of youth arrested in New York City in the first year of Raise the Age were Black or Latino, despite a continuing, yearslong decline in arrests overall.
And despite a decreased reliance on out-of-home detention placements for youth, the climate in the youth courts can be counterproductive, the report explained. “The courtrooms we observed, in their routine practices and protocols, continue to feel like a dehumanizing and criminalizing environment not conducive to finding the most supportive outcomes for young people,” it said. “The use of handcuffs and officers closely surrounding young people were two of the most concrete and quantifiable examples.”
The report noted that conditions were less stifling for youth in the family courts, which handle delinquency cases, compared with the adult criminal court’s new “Youth Part.” Still, in both settings, the court watchers also saw young people and families waiting for their hearings for hours, or all day, missing school and work. After the long waits, at times,“life-changing” hearings lasted only a few minutes.
Under Raise the Age, the Youth Part courtrooms handle cases of teens accused of higher level, violent offenses. Although judges and officers have been trained in adolescent brain development and best practices for working with youth, the courts still rely on adult sentencing guidelines.
During her many months of observation, Kaba said she found officials in these youth courts within the adult system often acted in an unnecessarily punitive manner: Court officers surrounded youth, and loomed behind them in front of the judge, in a manner that appeared almost threatening.
“It was one of the first things I noticed. Just imagine you are 16 and you are already handcuffed, and the court officers are surrounding you,” Kaba said. “It’s just very intimidating. Is this what they are doing to our young people? That needs to change.”
On the other hand, she encountered more resistance to entering family court hearing rooms – despite statewide court rules that provide for open hearings, and even when there were clearly empty seats available.
“I feel like court officers run the courtroom. If they don’t want to let you in they just won’t. ‘Oh the courtroom’s too full,’ they’d say,” said Kaba. “I don’t know if it was because of my appearance, or how I talked – who knows? But when I was with my supervisor, I was allowed into the courtroom.”
A spokesman for the state’s Office of Court Administration sent a statement in response to questions about the Collaborative’s published report. The spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, said Raise the Age has been a “seamlessly implemented” success, which has kept youth out of the adult criminal justice system and in the Family Court.
Chalfen explained the different protocols between criminal court and family court as reasons for “a disparity in the attention paid to a defendant,” and added that the courts have made “tremendous strides” in reducing delays, through the Chief Judge’s Excellence Initiative. Still, he said, “it remains a very busy system and Family Court in particular, can have multiple attorneys involved in a case further exacerbating scheduling adjourn dates.”
Watching it all unfold each day as an outsider, Kaba said she often felt overwhelmed with the tragic stories of accused young people she saw in court. To maintain focus, she reread what she wrote in April 2019 about her motivations to observe Raise the Age in action: “Black and brown youth endure so much pain and trauma and the system seems to always fail us. We are criminalized before we are humanized. We are targeted before we are questioned.”
In that early statement of purpose, she also invoked the names of two childhood friends who went to the Rikers Island lockup, just before Raise the Age created potentially healthier and safer options for teens. Her friends are out of the notorious New York adult jail now, she said in an interview this week.
But there are still a lot of barriers for them, and a lot of pain and trauma to heal from, she noted: “That’s why I got into this work.”