IVETTE FELICIANO: 22-year-old Asad Giles feels lucky to have his job as an administrative assistant in this Midtown Manhattan hotel. He says life could be drastically different right now. Five years ago, at 17, the NYPD arrested Giles for allegedly shooting a female classmate after they’d both left a school fundraiser. His name and address were all over local news reports. And then, he was incarcerated in New York City’s main jail for pre-trial suspects on Rikers Island.
ASAD GILES: I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was my senior year in high school. I was about to go to college in Atlanta. It was like a bad dream.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Giles denied the charges, but his working class family in Jamaica, Queens, could not afford his bail, set at $100,000. He spent his 18th and 19th birthdays — what would have been his first two years of college — behind bars. He says on his first day inside, he witnessed a teen getting beat up.
ASAD GILES: It’s pretty vicious in there. You got rapists, murderers. You got all type of people in there. You never know what can happen. You could be asleep, somebody beating on you.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Finally….after 28 months on Rikers, Giles, seen here with his nephew, got his day in court, and a judge acquitted him of all charges. To this day, no one has been convicted in that shooting. Giles says he’s still traumatized.
ASAD GILES: If I walk into a store and there’s a group of cops in there, I would leave the store. Just because I got incarcerated for something I didn’t do. So it’s like, are they going to do it again?
IVETTE FELICIANO: Giles says his residual fears stem from the fact that at 17-years-old, he was held at an adult jail, rather than a juvenile detention center.
North Carolina and New York are the only states that, automatically detain, prosecute, and incarcerate all 16 and 17 year olds as adults… regardless of the crime.
In New York, more than 27-thousand 16 and 17-year-olds were arrested in 2015, More than 2 thousand of them were convicted and spent time incarcerated. On any given day, some 700 16 and 17 year olds in New York are locked up in adult jails awaiting the outcome of their cases…about 200 of them, mostly Black and Latino, are at Rikers.
Upon Asad Giles’ release, the organization “Friends of Island Academy,” helped him enroll in college and find his hotel job.
ASAD GILES: They definitely put me on my feet. A good jump. A good transition.
IVETTE FELICIANO: For almost three decades, the organization has provided post-incarceration services to juveniles not offered by New York State.
MESSIAH RAMKISSOON: I’ve watched people grow up in the prison system.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Messiah Ramkissoon works with the group as a Program Director and believes a successful transition back into society is essential in reducing recidivism.
He also points to studies showing that the human brain is highly malleable up until your mid-twenties. and that, until that age, the parts of our brains responsible for decision-making and impulse control aren’t fully developed.
MESSIAH RAMKISSOON: That 16, 17-year-old age bracket, 18, sometimes older, the brain is still developing. So what this environment does is shapes the nature of the being. So you have young people who come out and they tell you, “I’m not afraid to go right back,” because part of their psyche and the way they think and development of the brain has been composed behind these bars.
MESSIAH RAMKISSOON: He’s been through a lot during the 16 months he’s been incarcerated
IVETTE FELICIANO: On a recent Tuesday morning at the group’s headquarters in Harlem, the staff meet to discuss other cases as part of their new “youth reentry network,” funded by a 3-million dollar a year grant from the New York City Department of Corrections.
MESSIAH RAMKISSOON: He’s not in contact with anyone in terms of family.
IVETTE FELICIANO: As part of this new program launched in November, these youth advocates act as the point person for every 16 and 17 year old incarcerated at Rikers offering them support by helping their lawyers expedite their cases, or re-connecting them to family members and keeping tabs on teens if they get released.
CHRIS PAHIGIAN: Any time a child is arrested, cuffed and held, whatever system you’re in, it’s traumatizing.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Chris Pahigian is executive director of Friends of Island Academy.
CHRIS PAHIGIAN: The role of the reentry network or any system of aftercare support is that we know coming out of the box where it is you’re going to go home to. And// to have a plan in place and to help navigate and implement that plan once they get home.
IVETTE FELICIANO: There’s also emotional and mental health counseling. On a typical night here, formerly incarcerated people meet to discuss their experience being locked up as an adolescent.
CHRIS PAHIGIAN: For decades we have been criminalizing young people, locking young people up in masses So now, we have generations of people who carry the stigma and who carry the trauma of that process.
IVETTE FELICIANO: That stigma and trauma has been on the rise since the 1970s, when the federal government and states began adopting harsher sentencing laws for drug crimes, including for juveniles. In the 1990s, the advent of mandatory minimum sentences and the expansion of juvenile transfer laws increasingly shifted control of juvenile cases from family courts to regular criminal courts.
That decade, the number of juveniles incarcerated in adult jails quadrupled. But since 2000, spurred by the research on the social and economic costs of incarcerating youth, like increased suicide rates and recidivism, state legislatures changed their laws and, by 2014, those numbers decreased by more than half.
CHRIS PAHIGIAN: The fundamental difference is that in the family court, that child who is charged with a crime is viewed as somebody who is a child, for whom elements of rehabilitation and support must be put in place because they’re still a kid. But the difference of a few months puts that same kid for the same crime in the adult system.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Three-quarters of 16 and 17 year olds who are arrested in New York State face misdemeanor charges for offenses like possession of marijuana or vandalism. But one quarter are prosecuted as adults for more serious felony charges like robbery and drug trafficking.
Arguments for “raising the age” of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 have fallen flat in the New York State legislature each time proposals have come up for a vote in the past three years.
PATRICK GALLIVAN: What I’m suggesting is that we just don’t change an entire system until we know more.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Patrick Gallivan chairs the Crime, Crime Victims, and Corrections Committee in the New York State Senate. He’s also the former Sheriff of Erie County, which includes Buffalo. He’s voted against raising the age.
PATRICK GALLIVAN: People are saying that, jeez, our young people shouldn’t be incarcerated. Our young people deserve a chance. Children should be treated different than adults. Who can say no to that, just on the premise. Anybody who raises questions can be looked at as a big bad ogre when they’re raising questions but that isn’t the case at all.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Gallivan argues that incarcerated 16 and 17 year olds are often treated differently than adults in that their criminal records can be sealed.
And due to the Prison Rape Elimination Act passed by Congress, all federal and state prisons must separately house juveniles under 18 from adults.
IVETTE FELICIANO: The argument that I’ve heard from raise the age advocates is that just touching the adult criminal system can have a long-lasting impact. Being housed at a place like Rikers for 18, 19 months while you’re waiting for your trial to start.
PATRICK GALLIVAN: The bullet has the same impact. Recently— in this Erie County area, an individual was convicted of crimes that were committed when he was over 16 but under 18 years old. He killed two people. Shot six others. Well, my gosh, should an individual like that be subjected or get a lesser sentence?
MICHAEL FLAHERTY: Some of our most violent offenders are teenagers.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Michael Flaherty, who just stepped down as the acting District Attorney for Erie County, says requiring all juvenile cases to be heard in family court would strip away a prosecutor’s tools to adequately try teens in criminal court when needed.
MICHAEL FLAHERTY: Under the current system I have a voice, I have a say, I get to use my professional judgment. What we don’t need is a uniform policy which presumes that the best interests of the offender trump public safety, or trump the justice system. we dismiss charges all the time, just on reviewing the papers, and the facts. I have no control over what happens in family court.
IVETTE FELICIANO: With no forthcoming changes in State law, and as part of reforms in response to a federal investigation documenting widespread abuse at juveniles at Rikers, New York City Mayor De Blasio announced last year that 16 and 17-year-olds would be moved off Rikers by 2020, and he ended solitary confinement for anyone younger than 21.
The New York City Department of Corrections is subjecting Rikers guards to more rigorous training, in addition to the jail’s partnership with Friends of Island Academy, it recently increased educational programming for juveniles.
Friends of Island Academy plans to push this year for the State to raise the age of adult criminality to 18.
For now, the organization will continue supporting youth transitioning out of incarceration with adults, like Asad Giles, something he believes helped keep him from ever being arrested again.
ASAD GILES: I could have gotten out with a jail mindset like F everything. I don’t want to go back to school I just want to stay in the streets…But I didn’t want that for myself, so I contacted Friends and just got ready to make my life better.