Before Kayla Mowatt headed up to Albany to join advocates in a rally to “Raise the Age” at which young people are tried as adults in New York, she did some research.
The eighth-grader at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School talked to her dad, a state corrections officer, about why a teen might be charged as an adult when it comes to serious crimes. Then Mowatt scoured the internet and learned that young men of color were disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
“Because I’m African American, and my brothers are African American, I felt really strongly about this,” she said. “I wouldn’t want my brothers to have a mistake put on their records.”
At the invitation of her principal, Mowatt, the school’s student council president, joined advocates from across the state this week to lobby for changes in how New York treats minors in the justice system. She and other students met with Senate staffers to share their thoughts.
“Kids learn the most by doing,” said Benjamin Geballe, assistant principal at the school. He took Mowatt and two other students to the state capitol so they could witness “democracy in action,” Geballe said.
“I realized when I was listening to these kids talk up there, they were pulling together so many different skills and pieces of knowledge that they’ve learned in middle school,” he added.
In meetings with Senate staffers, one student talked about how the adolescent brain forms well into adulthood — a lesson he remembered from seventh-grade science. Another drew on class discussions about race to talk about inequities in the justice system, Geballe said.
New York is one of only two states that prosecutes all 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system, according to Raise the Age, a coalition of dozens of community organizations. Almost 28,000 adolescents in New York are arrested each year. A majority of those arrests — 72 percent — are for misdemeanor crimes, according to the campaign.
New York’s harsh approach is troubling to many educators, said Jonathan Spear, an education consultant and supporter of the Raise the Age campaign.
“They just have a more true and general understanding of what a 16- and 17-year-old is,” said Spear, who co-founded ARC Impact, a company that works with schools and districts on how to better use their time and resources. “I hope, too, that educators have more experience seeing kids turn their lives around from bad to good.”
Teens, faith leaders and educators will make their case at an event Monday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Central Synagogue, working in collaboration with Congregation Beth Elohim, is hosting the meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Midtown.