Michael’s Story: How the Juvenile Justice System Fails New York City’s Youth

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The Juvenile Justice Project is working to reduce the use of youth detention in New York City. Despite public perceptions, most young people in detention have not committed violent or even serious crimes. Working as a lawyer in Family Court, I saw first hand how the system jails young people, not because of the serious or violent nature of their behavior, but because of underlying social issues with their families and communities. Unfortunately, this story of one of my clients portrays typical issues faced by young people in the juvenile justice system and the failed ways that this system routinely responds to youth.

When Michael was born, his mother was addicted to drugs and unable to care for him. He was adopted by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. When he was fourteen, his grandmother died of a stroke. His grandfather was also very ill and unable to care for Michael who tried to manage on his own and did the shopping, cleaning and cooking. However, Michael became depressed and began missing school and smoking marijuana. When I met him, he had been arrested for smoking marijuana in public (a misdemeanor).

Normally, the police would have released Michael to his grandfather. In this instance, however, they were unable to reach him because the phone had been disconnected. Michael was taken to Family Court where a case was filed against him. At his arraignment, Michael appeared with no family members present. I explained that his grandfather was ill and that the phone was disconnected. The Probation Department representative reported that Michael had stopped attending school. The judge stated that if Michael’s grandfather was too sick to come to court and make sure Michael went to school, he was too sick to be a proper caretaker. She sent Michael to a locked detention facility while he awaited trial.

Michael was taken to the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center. All of his personal belongings – down to his watch and underwear – were taken from him and he was issued a regulation outfit consisting of previously worn socks, underwear and a beige jumpsuit. Each item had the initials DJJ (Division of Juvenile Justice) printed on it in big letters. Michael was then escorted to a cell with a bed and a thin blanket. Spofford was very frightening and oppressive to Michael. He felt more and more depressed and he often cried in his cell at night.

The trial was three days later. We lost. The case was adjourned for the sentencing phase at which time the judge would decide whether Michael should be sent home or placed away from home for a period of one year. The reports to the court detailing Michael’s mental health and social history indicated that he had a substance abuse problem and was suffering from depression. Eventually, the judge granted Michael probation and sent him home with his grandfather. The Court ordered Probation to help the grandfather enroll Michael in school and counseling and to find an after- school program for him.

Michael’s grandfather was too sick to take him to the high school placement office so Michael had no one who could legally enroll him in school. He ended up missing the first four months. Because of the waiting list at the clinic that took his insurance, he received no treatment for his depression or his substance abuse problems. Michael started smoking marijuana again and was re-arrested for possession. He was sent to back Spofford. Michael had officially violated probation and the judge placed him with the NYS Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) for one year. He was sent to a medium-secure facility in upstate New York, seven hours from home.

It was about this time that I started working on the Juvenile Justice Project so I have lost track of Michael. I can only hope that he has finally found some help that has interrupted his cycling through the system. Young people like Michael and what happens to them are what make the Project so critical. We work to make the juvenile justice system accountable for its failures and to reduce the numbers of young people who face the disruptive and profoundly disturbing experience of being incarcerated. We strive to end the practice of needelssly jailing young people and to redirect public funding from costly detention facilities to services and programs that address the underlying social problems that so often cause youth to become ensnared in the criminal justice system.

(Names were changed to protect the identity of people mentioned in this article)