I spent this summer working for The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. Legal Aid provides legal services for those who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. I worked as an investigator intern in the juvenile rights practice, working in the field on behalf of children and their families. When I saw an op-ed in The New York Times urging New York State to institute juvenile courts, I felt sick at heart, because I know how much a trial can impact a child’s life.
As an investigator intern, I worked with children of low-income households whose complicated, sometimes disturbing, family circumstances contributed a great deal to the cases at hand. Legal Aid represents both children accused of crimes and children who are alleged victims of crimes, and it works closely with the courts and other agencies to set up services that improve quality of life and health as well as address penal issues. That said, each case often exposes multiple issues, and the solutions the court is willing and able to provide do not always completely address all those factors.
In theory, we should already have juvenile courts by now; in function, family court is supposed to specifically deal with cases involving children and families. Family court, loosely defined, constitutes a separate judicial body that deals with everything from custody proceedings to child welfare to PINS (Persons In Need of Supervision) to delinquency trials for youths who are judged to be juvenile as opposed to adult offenders. Under New York law, anyone under age 16 can be automatically designated as a juvenile, and therefore have a right to special proceedings that theoretically take into account their youth in the trial and sentencing processes. Young people over the age of 16 face significant obstacles in obtaining juvenile delinquent status, especially if the crimes constitute serious offenses.
In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), the United States Supreme Court ruled that all juveniles have the same right to due process as adults in the case of delinquency proceedings, including the right to counsel and the right to confront witnesses. However, many states disagree as to what extent children should be tried as adults and at what age they should be judged adults and held liable for their actions as adults. In many cases, even when there are special provisions for cases involving a juvenile defendant, a judge has discretion as to how the trial proceeds.
Depending upon a judge’s attitude toward juvenile delinquents and that judge’s opinion regarding the role of the judicial system in discouraging crime or reforming offenders, a juvenile offender may in fact face harsher discipline than an adult offender, especially for politically stigmatized crimes such as drug-related offenses. On the other hand, if a judge or prosecutor has a particularly progressive view regarding family court and juvenile delinquents, that may pave the way for consideration of special programs or services in lieu of a harsher sentence.
A court conviction, especially a felony conviction, negatively impacts a person’s chances of obtaining access to higher education, a decent job, good housing, loans, and other important opportunities that can greatly impact a person’s success in life. At Wesleyan, we represent a wide array of students whose perspectives always enrich any discussion or interaction on campus. I know several people who almost didn’t make it into our university, and from my interactions with some of the people I met through Legal Aid, I know several people who would have greatly benefited from and contributed to our university.
I know that it is virtually impossible to guarantee one’s constitutional right to a fair trial given all the discrepancies and problems within our flawed judicial system, but it is clear that children do not think like adults and should not face the same penalties for their actions. As younger people, they deserve an opportunity to reenter society with an improved understanding of the consequences of their actions, and they have a greater chance of learning from their mistakes. They also have a greater portion of their futures ahead of them.
I am now very familiar with the New York State and New York City sentencing guidelines, and relatively minor offenses often translate to years in prison, years which are particularly formative in a young person’s development. We are far from an ideal solution regarding how best to house youth offenders and what programs and services to assign them. We need to develop a better procedure by which to judge whether a youthful offense merits time in prison or in a halfway house under supervision. Establishing a special juvenile court would go a long way toward improving trial procedures for juveniles.
Alperstein is a member of the class of 2014.