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Kids in Court: Is It Time to Raise the Age for Criminal Responsibility?

Activists are hoping to "raise the age" in states where minors can be treated as adults in court for criminal offenses including minor violations.
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ST. LOUIS, Mo.—Deshaun Barbee moves around this city like a man chased. He dodges the police, has used an alias, and once borrowed a relative’s driver’s license to hide his identity.

Barbee, 19, lives like this because of events that took place when he was underage: Two years ago, he was caught riding the commuter train without a ticket. A year earlier, at 16, police found him driving a car without insurance.

For both incidents, local police issued Barbee tickets with summonses to appear in court. But because he was poor and on his own—his mother had died, and he was living with his older sister—he said he didn't show up in St. Louis City Municipal Court to pay the tickets. The court issued a bench warrant. Now he’s afraid that if police stop him again, he could go to jail.

Barbee said he felt marked as a criminal even before hitting adulthood. “I’m not talking about drug cases,” he said. “I’m talking about simple tickets.”

Missouri is one of nine states that treat 17-year-olds as adults for all criminal charges, from serious felonies like murder to lower-level offenses as minor as fare dodging and traffic violations. (Municipal courts in Missouri have jurisdiction for kids as young as 15 in traffic and ordinance cases.) Two of those nine states—North Carolina and New York—treat 16-year-olds as adults for all criminal issues.

While significant attention has been paid in recent years to the incarceration of juveniles as young as 13 in adult prisons for convictions of serious crimes, many more minors have had their life paths disrupted by low-level misdemeanors and violations, according to some criminal justice experts.

“The thing about so many misdemeanors is that we don’t even think anybody did anything that wrong,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at Loyola Law School. “And yet we are crippling people in their lives.”

Advocates for criminal justice reform in New York City have in recent years battled to roll back the “broken windows” model of policing. While supporters say the aggressive enforcement of quality-of-life crimes has dramatically reduced overall crime, reformers say it has done more harm than good.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown put a spotlight on that area’s municipal court system, which many say ensnares low-income residents in a cycle of legal and financial trouble for traffic and ordinance violations.

For minors—especially those from low-income families and black and Latino neighborhoods, advocates say—getting convicted of low-level crimes can lead to lasting, and devastating, adult consequences.

Teens like Barbee who can’t afford to pay fines and fees often don’t show up in court, which can trigger warrants that can lead to arrest. Unpaid fines can mar credit records.

“We assume young people have the wherewithal to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and fees, when these young people are too young to enter into a contract, sign a lease, or even buy cigarettes,” said Mae Quinn, a director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University Law School.

Barbee said his low-level charges have made him hesitant to even apply for jobs, because he knows his record may exclude him from employment, as well as police or military service.

“I’m looking to go into law enforcement,” Barbee said, “and I actually had to put that off several times because I didn’t have the money to go and pay the warrant off so I could get a city and county background check.”

“There’s not one benefit that [New York teens] can get—we don’t even have legal emancipation—except to be prosecuted as an adult.”

It’s unclear how many teens in America are being charged and convicted as adults for minor crimes. Neither the New York State’s Unified Court system nor the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice had data available on misdemeanor convictions and civil judgments issued to people under 18.

But the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice did provide data showing that New York City police made an average of about 23,000 arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds each year between 2011 and 2013. More than three quarters of these arrests were for misdemeanors rather than felonies.

In the absence of a full picture, data provided by The Legal Aid Society in New York City — which Legal Aid says account for about 60 percent of all criminal cases in city courts — offer a window into teens driven into the adult system.

New York City courts issued 1,400 warrants to 16- and 17-year-olds represented by Legal Aid each year between 2011 and 2014. During the same years, the court handed down 1,600 misdemeanor and violation convictions to Legal Aid clients under 18 annually. State courts attach surcharges of between $90 and $300 to each of those convictions. If defendants of any age fail to pay these surcharges, they can be pegged with civil judgments that blemish their credit.

New York City contracts with nonprofits to help divert juveniles out of criminal penalties but most of these programs target felony charges, the mayor’s office said. Youth advocates say lower level charges have damaging effects, too.

Nancy Ginsburg, who directs a project of New York’s Legal Aid Society focused on defending adolescents, said there’s a particular irony that youth interactions with the criminal system can lead to ruined credit since they are not legally allowed to engage in most financial activities.

Teenagers in New York “can’t even get a tattoo legally,” Ginsburg said. “There’s not one civil contract or benefit that they can get—we don’t even have legal emancipation in this state—except to be prosecuted as an adult.”

Barbee believes his record has prevented him from getting jobs. “Everyone runs a background check when they hire,” he said.

In St. Louis County, where 81 municipal courts have jurisdiction over 17-year-olds for all legal issues, and people as young as 15 for traffic violations, kids lack the protections they might get in juvenile courts, such as the chance to appear in closed court or have their records automatically sealed. Those who don’t show up face even more trouble.

NBC News filed public information requests with most of the municipal courts in St. Louis County and St. Louis city requesting data on bench warrants for 16- and 17-year-olds. Eleven courts provided data, but the majority denied the requests, saying they do not track that data and are not by law required to produce warrant reports based on age.

Numbers provided by the city of St. Louis offer a snapshot. Between 2011 and 2014, the city’s municipal court issued an annual average of 340 warrants on 17-year-olds and 40 warrants on 16-year-olds for failing to appear in court. Most have been resolved after the teen paid fines or was arrested, but dozens of warrants remain open, sometimes for years. The court of Jennings, a town of about 14,000 in St. Louis County, issued an average of 79 warrants a year in the same period on 17-year-olds and 15 on 16-year-olds.

While warrants issued to juveniles are a tiny fraction of total warrants issued by those municipalities, they can have lasting effects on the young people who receive them.

Barbee believes his record has prevented him from getting jobs. “Everyone runs a background check when they hire,” he said. He worked in a fast-food restaurant for a time, but since moving and leaving that job, he has struggled to find work. Unemployed, Barbee can’t afford rent. He now sleeps many nights at one of a half dozen shelters in St. Louis County.

In most of the nine states where 17-year-olds are treated as adults, advocates are asking to “raise the age” to 18 for those accused of low-level crimes.

In a speech on Martin Luther King Day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. If approved by state lawmakers, the proposal would mark a major victory for youth advocates who have long fought against treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The plan would proceed in phases, moving the age to 17 in 2017 and 18 in 2018.

The announcement came upon release of a report from a commission the governor appointed last year to examine the state's treatment of youth in the criminal justice system, including the approximately 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds who end up in the adult system each year who are disproportionately young men of color.

Last year in North Carolina, a bill to raise the age died in the legislature. While it had bipartisan support, representatives from the North Carolina Sheriff's Association opposed the move, voicingconcerns to the press about the cost of moving more minors to juvenile court, as well as hamstringing law enforcement when dealing with “career criminals.”

“There are kids sitting in school scared they’ll be arrested.”

Tyrell, an 18-year-old high school student from New York City, has seen how youthful offenses can balloon. (Tyrell asked his real name not be used because his record has been sealed.)

When Tyrell was 16, he said, his adoptive mother kicked him out of her apartment in the Soundview, a housing project in the Bronx. He had grown up there, hanging around with a boy he now calls a “bad influence.” One day in school, Tyrell took another student’s iPod. He was charged with petit larceny, pleaded down to a disorderly conduct violation, and was levied a $95 court surcharge.

Without a home or a parent in his life, Tyrell’s situation devolved. Around Christmas 2012, he began to sell drugs to make money. A few weeks later, he was arrested, taken to adult court, and charged with a felony.

Because he was young and had no prior drug charges, Tyrell wasn’t locked up. But with nowhere to stay, he said he soon began sleeping on the subway. One day in March 2013, he walked through a subway turnstile without paying and was arrested again. That “theft of services” charge brought Tyrell 50 days in city jail on Rikers Island, where he was held in a special section for 16- and 17-year-olds.

“It was hard to go to Rikers Island with a bunch of men, and be treated like a threat to society, and I didn’t know any better,” Tyrell said. “You’re treated like an animal.”

It was a jail counselor who realized that helping Tyrell meant addressing not just his court cases but his family life. She connected him with the Legal Aid Society, which helped him get youthful offender status on the drug charge. (That leads to criminal files being sealed in cases involving defendants under 19.) Tyrell pled to violations on his other cases, which automatically disappear from all records after a year, and his full record is now sealed.

Legal Aid also helped Tyrell open a neglect investigation with the city’s child protective agency against his adoptive mother.

Tyrell is back in high school now. He has a job as an Applebee’s busboy and lives with a foster parent in Manhattan. But even with his cases sealed,the fallout of his tangle with the criminal justice system continues.

Sealing his record did not exempt Tyrell from owing more than $300 in court fines and surcharges. Tyrell’s foster family at the time did not offer help, he said, and he couldn’t afford to pay. While New York does not issue warrants for unpaid surcharges, the debts can lead to civil judgments that Tyrell’s lawyer said has tarnished his credit and could make it difficult for him to get a loan or a job someday.

“If you’re a black low-income teen, you’re going to get stopped.”

Back in St. Louis, high school teacher Susan Lampros said she watches her students struggle to navigate a world in which they feel caught between their criminal records and their goals for the future.

“There are kids sitting in school scared they’ll be arrested,” said Lampros, who teaches at Northwest Academy of Law, a high school located in a poor, largely African-American neighborhood. “Some say they want a law career. But these warrants can keep them from that.”

This month, the Missouri Supreme Courttook a step intended to shrink the number of people locked up for failing to pay fines, allowing them more time to settle their debts. It’s not yet clear what that will mean for Lampros’ students, who she said face a daily reality few outside of their world see.

“If you’re a black low-income teen, you’re going to get stopped,” she said. “Middle-class white America does not realize that some people just don’t get the same treatment.”