Report on Abuse of Adolescent Inmates in New York Draws Attention to Juvenile Justice System Crisis

Posted Oct. 15, 2014

MP3 Interview with Josh Rovner, state advocacy associate with the Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


In August, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, issued a report charging that the New York City Department of Correction had systematically violated the civil rights of young male prisoners, 16 to 18 years old, held at Rikers Island, by failing to protect them from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by abusive correction officers.

The report described a “deep-seated culture of violence” against youthful inmates at the jail complex, perpetrated by guards who operated with little fear of punishment. It singled out for blame a “powerful code of silence” among the Rikers Island prison staff, along with a virtually useless system for investigating charges against guards made by inmates. The report found that the result was a “staggering” number of injuries among adolescent inmates.

U.S. attorney Bharara warned that if the city did not work cooperatively to develop new policies and procedures, the Justice Department could file a federal lawsuit asking a judge to order the imposition of remedies. On the date the report was issued, Aug. 4, Bharara gave the city 49 days to respond to the investigation’s findings. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Josh Rovner, state advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project, who talks about the investigation and the larger problem of criminally charging teenagers as adults and taking a hard line on minor offenses.

JOSH ROVNER: I would say that many of the problems at Rikers are larger than any one site. The federal investigation revealed things that shocked the conscience, but one would have to be blind to think that those abuses are unique to the three buildings that the (project) happened to investigate. They didn't even look at the girls' prisons. We can talk about what they did find. They found a deep-seated culture of violence. That's not the prisoners; that's the guards, and those guards had little fear of being punished.

BETWEEN THE LINES: New York is one of only two states that treat 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. What impact do you think that may have had on the level of violence directed against them?

JOSH ROVNER: New York state is one of just two states to treat everyone over 16 as an adult. North Carolina is the other. And I think it's important to get this exactly correct. New York state says if you're accused of a crime at 16, you're an adult. But you're still a teenager when you apply for a driver's license, if you want to get married or buy alcohol or cigarettes. When it comes to the justice system, they're willing to make an exception; 16-year-olds are occasionally adults in NYS. All the science disagrees with this view; adolescent brains are still developing. Even teenagers who do make mistakes though, do have a capacity for reform. Teenagers are not little adults.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Until a few years ago, Connecticut also considered 16- and 17-year-olds adults in the criminal justice system. Do you have any comparative data on New York and Connecticut since the change?

JOSH ROVNER: Connecticut did raise the age back in 2007. They passed a law, and that went into effect on New Year's Day, 2010. Connecticut joined the mainstream on that, and did their crime go up? No! Juvenile arrest rates in Connecticut fell from 22,000 in 2008 to 13,000 in 2011 – that's the last year for which there's data, and that's a 41 percent drop. Let's compare that to NYS: 2008, there were 102,000 arrests; 2011, 120,000 arrests of juveniles; that's an 18 percent increase. Being tough on crime doesn't work. These are federal counts, and they count juveniles as being 10 to 17 years old, 17 inclusive, so whether the state is treating juveniles as juveniles, they're still counted under the federal data.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So the U.S. attorney's office issued a report, and the New York Times also did an expose on the issue...

JOSH ROVNER: I think what is so awful about this study is that we discovered that the data that was available is completely inadequate. The teenagers were afraid to report what was happening. The New York Times in their additional study found that corrections officials had sanitized the data – that's a polite way of saying they lied, that the abuses and fights and beatings were even worse. The teenagers don't report the abuse for fear of retribution. So the data that we have is incomplete. The federal report issued 80 recommendations; I think the most important is removing teenagers entirely from Rikers; that system is broken for juveniles.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Josh Rovner, does the government report suggest where these teens should be held?

JOSH ROVNER: They ought to be in community-based programs closer to home. The New Yorker had this remarkable piece about Kalief Browder, 16 years old. He was being investigated for stealing a backpack; the police said he stole it; Kalief said he didn't. This is what we have courts for. And he sat at Rikers Island for three years because of the backlog of cases. The question of whether we need to be locking up low-level offenders in the first place is a key question.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What other of the 86 recommendations do you think are the most important?

JOSH ROVNER: You know, they also recommended taking teenagers out of solitary confinement, which is something that all the adolescent development experts would agree with as well. Mayor DiBlasio announced in fact they are going to end solitary confinement for teenagers there, as of Dec. 31. When the announcement was made, there were 51 teenagers in solitary confinement at Rikers. Kids can be put into solitary confinement for things like horseplay, talking back and having more clothing than they're entitled to. It was something that was being completely abused. One thing I find very interesting in all of this is that the mayor's office has said that this change to solitary confinement was not in response to this report. I'm really wondering when it is that the mayor is going to respond to this report. There was a deadline of late September; we are now about two weeks past that deadline. Has anyone been fired, disciplined, reassigned? The mayor's office hasn't said so, and even worse, the warden and deputy warden of the facility have been promoted. It's an outrage. When you have a broken system and you're looking at that many recommendations, there's a lot to be done. It really starts with moving kids out of the facility and not locking up low-level offenders in the first place.

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