January 18, 2014

Fortune Favors the Bold (Pt 3)

On October 30, 1990, Robert 'Bam Bam' Lawrence shot and killed Syracuse police investigator Wallie Howard Jr, when an undercover drug deal went bad. Lawrence was 16 years old; Howard was 31.

Earlier this week, in federal court in Utica, a judge reduced Lawrence's sentence from life in prison to 31 years, on the basis of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling determining that a mandatory sentence of life in prison for anyone under the age of 18 was unconstitutional, as it met the criteria of cruel and unusual punishment.  In re-sentencing Lawrence, now 40, the judge noted that he had to take into consideration "the traits of youth" including "immaturity, vulnerability to peer pressure, and the likelihood that his character was not as well-formed' as an adult's would be. Four others, all over the age of 18 at the time, are serving life sentences.

Lawrence is also serving a concurrent state sentence of 30 years to life.

So what's the connection to Governor Cuomo's State of the State address, which is what this Fortune Favors the Bold series is all about? Well, the governor wants to do something about how young criminals are treated.  Here's what he said:
Our juvenile justice laws are outdated. Under New York State law 16- and 17-year-olds can be tried and charged as adults. Only one other state in the nation does that; it's the state of North Carolina.  It's not right, it's not fair - we must raise the age. Let's form a commission on youth public safety and justice and let's get it done this year. 
Liberals and progressives would say that we should not throw away a 16- or 17-year-old child, even one who commits bad acts, by putting them into the adult justice system. The child's decisions-making capacity is not fully formed at that age, according to scientific reports.  And, in 37 states and Washington DC, only offenders 18 years of age and older are treated as adults. Another 11 states would consider a 17 year old an adult, and as our Sonofa Governor mentioned in the SOTS, only North Carolina joins us at the 16 year old level.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice is leading the charge on changing how juveniles are treated in the American justice system. They and others have made the case that adolescent brains are not fully developed and capable of valid decision-making; that young offenders too prone to peer pressure and act badly as a result; that mental and behavioral influences help contribute to youth crime; that kids incarcerated with adults don't stand much of a chance in turning their lives around; and that recidivism rates are much higher for adult-incarcerated youth than they are for kids in the juvenile justice program, where significantly more attention is paid to reform, rehabilitation and re-entry into productive society.

One of the MacArthur studies compared statistics in New York and New Jersey (focusing on the New York City area) back in the early 1990s, and found that kids prosecuted in NY's adult courts were 85% more likely to be re-arrested for violent crimes and 44% more likely to be re-arrested for property crimes; in fact, for every category of crimes other than drug offenses juveniles in the adult system were more likely to be re-arrested than their juvenile system counterparts in New Jersey.   A subsequent study in 2001 found more developmental issues with adult-incarcerated youth.

These studies are among the ones being shared by the proponents of raising the age; RaisetheAgeNY has some even more compelling statistics, including:
  • 75.3% of the 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds arrested each year, and potentially facing the adult court system, were charged with misdemeanors;
  • 70% of the 16- and 17-year-olds arrested are black or Latino; and
  • 80% of the ones who end up being sentenced are black or Latino
These are sobering statistics, to be sure.  But so (as just one example) was the behavior of Robert Lawrence;  he committed an adult crime (murder of a police officer) while participating in an adult crime (a deal to sell a lot of cocaine) with the intention of committing yet another adult crime (stealing $42,000, the cash intended to purchase the coke).

This type of behavior -- these or any other serious crimes -- should continue to be treated as adult crimes. And whatever we do let's not become Texas, where blaming wealthy parents is now fair game, just as blaming a poor upbringing is fair game just about everywhere.

Now, the other question here is why we need to "form a commission on youth public safety" to tackle this.

Why not let the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children handle it? They're celebrating 25 years of service, according to their web page. Funny - I see that and I'm reminded of Syracuse's old Frank's Pizza, where they used to say in their late-night ads that they "know what they've been doing, they've been doing it for over 25 years" -- that's experience, folks!

Yes -- let's ask this permanent commission to tackle the Raise the Age issue. Or, heaven forbid, why not ask the New York State Legislature? No one's better at holding meetings than that group.

If we're going to do this, let's look at misdemeanors vs. more serious crimes; let's look at harm to the victims (property vs person, for example) and let's look at sentencing options (including any cases of mandatory minimums).  Let's not lose sight of three-strikes type laws, and make sure that they're reasonable. But let's not mess around pulling together another group, let's use the one that's in place and figure out what has to be done.

And in the process, let's make absolutely sure that families like Wallie Howard's are heard from -- for as much as liberals and progressives are in favor of protecting and promoting and supporting the lives and welfare of the young and the less fortunate, when it comes to crime and punishment, the voice of the victims cannot be forgotten. 


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  2. Given then that these children are only partially responsible for their behavior, then parents should somehow be held "the rest of the way"
    responsible in my opinion. "Affluenza" my a$$. It should be acknowledged that the parents [kid's name here] (Ethan Crouch for example) did something wrong too.