Public Policy Struggles with Children Who Kill, Part 1
By Mary Alice Miller
New York City mourned fallen police officer Dennis Guerra this week in a public demonstration of grief. Thousands of NYPD officers attended the funeral. Guerra, a husband and father of four young children who was posthumously promoted to First-Grade Detective, died days after he and his partner responded to the arson fire of a mattress on the 13th floor of a Coney Island high rise. Guerra’s partner, Rosa Rodriguez, remains in critical but stable condition in Cornell Medical Center where she is being treated for severe smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Sixteen-year-old Marcell Dockery admitted to police he had set fire to the mattress because he was bored. NYCHA has reportedly initiated termination of lease proceedings against Marcell’s mother, consistent with NYCHA policy of evicting tenants involved in serious crime.
Just weeks earlier on March 20, 14-year-old Kathon Anderson shot and killed husband and father Angel Rojas, an innocent passenger on the B15 bus in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant on Lafayette Avenue and Marcus Garvey Blvd.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office indicted 16-year-old Dockery on the top count of felony murder for causing the death of a person in the course of committing the crime of arson. “The senseless act of setting that fire tragically led to the death of NYPD Officer Dennis Guerra. His partner, Officer Rosa Rodriguez, suffered critical injuries. Both dedicated and courageous officers did not hesitate to risk their lives to save others,” said DA Kenneth Thompson. “We will bring the defendant to justice for these terrible and horrific crimes.”
Anderson was indicted for murder in the second degree. The 14-year-old was charged as an adult. “Angel Rojas was senselessly killed while simply riding a bus home from work, which thousands of people do throughout our city every day. He did not deserve to die so tragically and we will hold the defendant, Kathon Anderson, responsible for taking the life of this innocent and hardworking man,” said District Attorney Thompson.
Thompson is Brooklyn’s chief law enforcement officer, but he is also among a growing number of public and private citizens who call for raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old.
During his inauguration speech, Thompson called treating children as young as 16 as adults a “grave injustice” and said, “We should not have children going to adult prisons where they are vulnerable to being sexually assaulted and the rates of suicide are so high.” He added, “I will use my voice as Brooklyn DA and work with our elected officials up in Albany to correct this injustice.”
New York and North Carolina are the only states that continue to charge children as adults. Raise the Age seeks to change that.
Raise the Age is a national campaign that advocates for all children being treated as children in the legal system. The campaign Web site points to studies that support the policy change. Adolescent impulsivity and lack of consequential thinking is a result of brain development that doesn’t fully mature until age 25. Most young people who find themselves in adult prison systems are there for committing minor crimes. Placing children in adult prisons puts them at increased risk of sexual assault and suicide. Recidivism rates increase with children in adult facilities, in part because adolescents are susceptible to environmental influences, positive or negative. Youth of color are more likely to be arrested and subsequently placed in adult facilities.
Raise the Age advocates for a legal process that must respond to all children as children while providing services and placement options must meet the age-appropriate rehabilitative needs of all young people, including mental health services.
According to Raise the Age, institutionalizing young people must be the choice of last resort, reserved only for those who pose such a serious threat that no other solution would protect public safety.
NYC is home to many individuals who as teenagers engaged in behaviors that led to the killing of innocent citizens, served time for manslaughter, were rehabilitated and are now productive members of society. But none of them committed acts that led to the killing of a police officer.
Nationally, there have been a number of horrific deaths or critical injuries committed by teens, including Columbine and Newtown, Connecticut, a Texas teen was convicted of intoxicated manslaughter for a 2013 crash that killed four and injured others, and most recently the 16-year-old who used knives to attack 21 students at his Pennsylvania school.
The Columbine and Newtown teen killers took their own lives. The Pennsylvania teen has been charged with attempted homicide and aggravated assault. The Texas teen – sentenced to probation and mandated rehabilitation – avoided jail time by using an “affluenza” defense, arguing that his wealthy family gave him a sense of entitlement and no consequences for his behaviors.
All of these cases, and more, elicit instinctual public outrage. Advocates for raising the age of criminal responsibility would argue that deciding public policy based upon the most extreme cases is counterproductive to the youth involved and public safety.
“There is no benefit to treating children as adults in the legal system – even for the most serious crimes – and it is in fact counterproductive to public safety, as young people transferred to the adult system have approximately 34% more rearrests for felony crimes than those retained in the youth justice system and around 80% of youth released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes,” said Marsha Weismann, Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives. “The Raise the Age NY campaign supports all children being treated as children in our legal system, and the evidence confirms that such treatment is best for public safety without distinction for the offense.”
Weismann explained that “When children break the law there needs to be consequences that are proportionate to the severity of the offense with incarceration as an option, but children should still be treated in an age-appropriate setting and manner.”
“We must stop allowing public policy to be determined by impulses for revenge rather than what has been shown by data and research to work for public safety in our communities,” Weismann added. “Governor Cuomo has established a commission to develop reforms that ensure New York’s place as a national leader in youth justice – we can accomplish that in part by addressing the issue of how we appropriately and effectively treat young people who commit some of the most serious offenses.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has been contacted for this report and has not been able to respond by press deadline.
Part 2 will further explore Governor Cuomo’s newly formed Juvenile Justice Reform Commission and a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that ban the death penalty and life imprisonment sentences for youth who kill.