One of New York’s newest judges in the “Youth Part” section of criminal court serving 16- and 17-year-olds is Brenda Freedman of Erie County. Freedman, 58, has been a lawyer in private practice with her mother, an elementary school teacher, and director of the nonprofit Erie County Bar Association Aid to Indigent Prisoner Society. Since 2016, she has served as a judge on the Family Court bench.
Two recent days in Freedman’s courtroom revealed the breadth of cases she handles in both the Youth Part and Family Court. In one case, she ordered a teen brought in from a youth detention center to pay a $15 restitution fee upon release and urged him to pursue his GED diploma. In another, Freedman had to decide whether to keep three teenage co-defendants in the adult division or move them to Family Court, where kids are connected with community-based services providing counseling, education and housing support.
The young people who appear before her are accused of crimes that range from petty theft to sexual assault and murder. But the defendants consistently reveal their youth. One teen looked anxiously at his father as Freedman discussed the next steps in his case. She ordered him to remain compliant with the rules of his probation. Another turned his head to relatives seated on the benches behind him before he was led away to a detention center.
“I love y’all,” he said.
Freedman attributes her expansive employment history as preparation for her current role.
She sat down with The Imprint to discuss her work, the effects of the Raise the Age law which ended the routine prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and the challenges facing teenagers in Erie County’s court system.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
I understand you were once in private practice with your mother, Maryann Saccomando Freedman. Can you tell me more about her and your professional relationship?
My mother, Maryann Saccomando-Freedman, was a huge glass-ceiling-breaker for women, particularly in law, but also for professional women everywhere.
Back in the early ’80s, as president of the Erie County Bar Association, she was invited to an event for the opening of a brand new courthouse here in Western New York. She went in with a couple male members of the board through the front door of The Buffalo Club, and the club attendant wouldn’t let her go in. Those days they had a rear entrance for women with a funky pink elevator for them to ride.
That led to a huge media sensation. Ultimately, a lawsuit wound up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. She won, and private clubs were no longer able to discriminate.
When my mother and I opened up a law practice together, I believe it was the first — if not the first then one of the first — mother-daughter law firms in the country. Because of who my mother was, she attracted all kinds of employment discrimination cases and family estate work. She attracted minority business owners to hire her to represent them. So, we did all things civil.
We had a wonderful time practicing law together, and it was wonderful to see my mom every day. That came to an end when I left the law and became an elementary school teacher.
Yes, you spent time teaching elementary students in the Buffalo and Amherst public schools. How has that informed your work on the bench?
I was not imagining I’d be a judge in the future. What’s been very interesting is to see all of my history coalesce in this job. My background as a school teacher has been phenomenally helpful in dealing with youth, knowing how to talk to youth, knowing where they are — developmentally and intellectually — knowing about how families interact and how certain childhoods can influence their thought processes.
One of the things you learn as a teacher is to build information on what they already know. That’s how a youth learns.
Given that Youth Part is a court division that has been around for less than five years, what are some of the challenges that have surfaced? What is working well?
We’ve overcome most of the challenges of the operational aspects of Youth Part. It operates very smoothly and does exactly what it was designed to do by the Legislature: to figure out which of those 16- and 17-year-olds should stay in the Youth Part and which should be transferred to Family Court and treated as juvenile delinquents.
If they stay in the Youth Part, it operates like any criminal court would operate procedurally. But at the tail end, if we get to sentencing and considering the youth’s age, needs and circumstances is part of what we have to consider.
The Raise the Age law was predicated on getting older teens the help and support they needed that they might not otherwise get if treated as adults. In Erie County, do you find that you can match them with the services they need? If so, what types of programs are most needed and most effective?
We have a wealth of resources in Erie County. Other counties are worse off than we are in terms of the breadth and capacity of programming. But there are clear gaps in what’s available, and they match some of these more dire needs. We don’t have a lot of programs that train youth to be employed and then employ those youth. We’re just starting to have some programs attempting to do that. The issue of kids not thinking that they can get a job, so they’re looking for alternative ways of making money is a huge concern. It can only lead down a path of crime. So it’s a fundamentally important issue.
Mentoring is a big issue. We’re trying to find a way to have mentors who’ve been there but have rehabilitated themselves. So they can relate to the youth and steer them in a different direction. The new buzzword for this kind of program is the “credible messenger program.” We need more of that, and we need better access to that.
Part of the problem is that if the court is going to mandate something, it better be good. It’s one thing for there to be programs out there that people can voluntarily choose to do or not choose to do, but if you’re going to be ordered to do something, the people that you’re being ordered to do it with better be good. It has to be done carefully and thoughtfully to ensure that whatever we do is done with fidelity and integrity.
Compared to Family Court, do you notice any differences in the behavior, demeanor or level of need among the older teens?
All the older youth have the same needs as younger youth, and more. They still have mental health needs, educational challenges, poverty issues, inadequacy of parenting, sometimes substance abuse issues. They lack appropriate role models or mentors and have all of the same things that the younger kids have, but then they have this issue of job hopelessness — this inability to see a future involving a job or employment.
They’re often parents themselves, so they have the responsibilities of being a parent, but they’re still a kid themselves. There’s also homelessness — because sometimes they were living with their parents or whoever they were living with no longer wants them at home because of the amount of trouble they brought. Because they’re older, child protective services doesn’t get quite so involved.
The significance of the risk they’re involved with and the dangers they put themselves in are considerable. Our job becomes even more important to try to steer these kids in the right direction. But to do that, we have to provide the appropriate support and foundations for them to walk that path.
Some New York county governments say there is a problem finding “specialized secure” pretrial detention beds for 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the most serious offenses. Is this a problem in your county? And if so, what are some possible solutions?
When they did this Raise the Age legislation, they didn’t change the capacity of beds. The 16- and 17-year-olds weren’t a part of our system, so there’s just more youth in need of these beds.
Erie County is extremely fortunate because we have a detention center in our county. But if you go to Niagara County or Chautauqua County and you’re in a county that doesn’t have one, they have to look around for beds.
Under Raise the Age, some 16- and 17-year-olds whose felony cases were nonviolent can still be held in the adult criminal courts if there are “extraordinary circumstances.” The Imprint has reported that in the first two years of the law’s implementation, judges found “extraordinary circumstances” in less than 10% of those cases. Given the public scrutiny on some nonviolent gun possession cases, for example, do you think that rate has changed in the past year, and if so, why?
The issue of extraordinary circumstances in the Youth Part has to do with whether or not a case is going to stay in the Youth Part or be transferred to Family Court. Certain cases, by definition, are going to stay in Youth Part. In many cases, no one’s going to argue it should be transferred to Family Court.
Then there are cases in between where it meets a certain threshold under the law and could stay in the Youth Part if extraordinary circumstances were found. But if they’re not found, the case must be transferred to Family Court.
You quoted 90% and 10%, and that’s probably accurate. The vast majority can not, by definition, all be extraordinary. The point of “extraordinary” is that it’s something out of the ordinary. It’s something more than the usual kind of case.
The burden is on the prosecutor or the district attorney’s office to prove that there are extraordinary circumstances. If they don’t prove that, then it has to go to Family Court.
Do you have goals for improving the court system for youth and their families, victims and others who appear in juvenile cases?
I can’t improve the court system. That is not something one judge can do. The Office of Court Administration has the responsibility for the court system. All I can do is work in my little niche of Erie County Family Court and the Erie County Youth Part, and we are constantly working to improve our system.
We’re always looking to develop programs or connect to programs that exist. There might be something that exists out there, but the people in the juvenile justice system don’t know about it. So, we need to bring them in and let them tell us.
Homelessness, for example, was the subject of our last coalition meeting.
If they had a youth present with that issue, everyone in the system would know where to turn, whether you’re the lawyer representing that youth or the prosecutor, probation officer or judge. So we know if this is an issue, we can say, “You need to go here.”