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June 2014 | Grants Newsletter

A Better Future for Teen Offenders

New York is one of only two states where courts still prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Studies show that putting young offenders into an adult justice system increases their chances of suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. They also are more likely to commit violent crimes or die by suicide after release.

And while many charges against teens are for minor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, criminal records make it more difficult to get jobs and more likely they’ll land back in jail.

Trust grants help young people ensnared in the court system; we’re funding efforts to fix the system, and this work is paying off.

Last year, a $200,000 grant to Public Interest Projects helped persuade Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice. Managed by the Vera Institute of Justice, the commission proposes raising the State’s age of criminal responsibility to 18 while making New York’s juvenile and criminal justice systems better serve teen offenders and protect public safety. This year’s grant of $100,000 to the Vera Institute will help these experts make recommendations in time to influence the 2015 State budget.

ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE LAW: Charles, former teen offender and current Skadden Arps Honors Fellow at CUNY, in front of the criminal division of the New York County Supreme Court. Photo by Ari Mintz / The Trust
Rebuilding My Future

By Charles, of Harlem

The trouble started when the police found me with a gun.

Let me explain: A fight broke out at a basketball tournament in Harlem, and I found the handgun on the street. I figured I could sell it. Teens don’t always think things through, and I was no exception.

Well, there were cops ever y where, and I got picked up. That was in 2007, and I was 17. I was convicted on criminal weapons charges—as an adult. I served five hard months on Rikers Island and was released into an alternative to incarceration program, on probation.

Months later, the public housing authority told my parents if I didn’t leave our housing project in West Harlem our whole family would be kicked out. I had just graduated high school and was doing everything right, so I decided to fight the eviction. Youth Represent—a group The New York Community Trust supports—helped me win. But that wasn’t the end.

In March 2011, as a fresh man at Bronx Community College, I had an astronomy assignment on the “supermoon”—the moon’s closest approach to Earth in 18 years. Wearing my slippers and shorts, I went to the roof of my building to take pictures. Two cops followed me, drew their guns and put me against a wall. I explained I was photographing the moon. They called in my name to see if I ha d a record. (So much for sealed records.) Then, they locked me up for trespassing and violating my probation.

By this time, I was helping teach a criminal justice course at Youth Represent. I called my colleagues. In two days, lawyers at Youth Represent helped me get the charges dismissed. But my experience shows how one wrong move as a teen can ensnare you in the court system.

I’m now a Skadden Arps Honors Fellow at City College of New York.

After graduation this summer, I’ll work full-time with Youth Represent, doing community outreach—thanks to support from The Trust. I’m also applying to law schools. I want communities to be safe and just for everyone, including teens. (Charles asked that his full name not be used.)

A $65,000 grant to Youth Represent is underwriting training sessions for young people on their rights and responsibilities during interactions with the police, in criminal court, and as job applicants.

Next article in June Newsletter: Halting Mercury Contamination>>

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