Akeem Browder and fellow criminal justice advocates joined members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference Tuesday in calling on the city to plan to remove juveniles from Rikers Island within a year as required by recently passed Raise the Age legislation.
The older brother of Kalief Browder — who was arrested at the age of 16 and sent to Rikers for three years, spending much of it in solitary confinement — spoke on behalf of the 150 16- and 17-year-olds currently held at the prison complex each day.
“The deepest change begins with New York changing the age of criminal responsibility, acknowledging that our kids are just kids and deserve to be treated better than the treatment given to my brother Kalief Browder,” the elder Browder said. “My work isn’t finished yet.”
Kalief was frequently beaten by guards and inmates after he was arrested for stealing a backpack, although he was never formally charged. The Browder family could not afford the $3,000 bail and after his release, he struggled with the trauma he endured in jail, eventually committing suicide in 2015.
The IDC is taking credit for the legislation passing the state Legislature after its eight members formed a coalition with Republicans for control of the Senate. State Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), the leader of the IDC, said without their influence, Raise the Age would not have happened.
Members from Queens agreed.
“Violence seems to be the common denominator at Rikers Island. The jail complex is a harsh environment for anyone, and this is particularly true for 16- and 17-year-olds,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said. “I am very glad that we, at the Independent Democratic Conference, were able to deliver Raise the Age in this year’s budget. Under the agreement, teenagers who are currently jailed in the troubled facilities will have to be transferred within one year to age-appropriate facilities. In 2017, there is no excuse to incarcerate adolescents with adults, especially 16- and 17-year-olds who are simply awaiting trial.”
New York and North Carolina currently are the only states to automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
“As the chairman of the Committee on Children & Families, I made Raise the Age my top priority and vowed that this would be the year we accomplished it,” Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said. “After holding the first public hearing dedicated solely to this issue, and hearing testimony from every side of the justice system, I knew this was something that needed to happen immediately. I am incredibly proud of the IDC for working to get Raise the Age included in this year’s budget and not allowing it to fall by the wayside. Getting children off Rikers Island is a great first step in instituting this legislation. I cannot wait to see the lives of families across the state improved as a result of raising the age.”
Mainline Democrats dismissed the IDC’s victory lap, saying the legislation was not progressive enough.
“While we certainly made progress, it is disingenuous to claim victory when the fact is that this reform was watered down and still pushes the majority of adolescents through criminal court,” Senate Democratic Communications Director Mike Murphy said. “The reality is if the IDC had stayed true to their democratic values, and not empowered the Republicans, we would have passed a real Raise the Age program, in addition to other crucial reforms.”
The de Blasio administration plans on complying with the reform that requires the city to move 16- and 17-year-olds off Rikers Island by 2018.
“Recognizing that kids have different needs than adults, we already house adolescents separately, and remain committed to moving them off Rikers Island,” mayoral spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr
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