MIDTOWN COMMUNITY COURT — On Wednesday afternoon last week, Judge Felicia Mennin quickly made her way through cases typical of Midtown Community Court — a series of petty crimes, like illegal vending, and various summonses for parking and other minor violations.
But Mennin took a moment to pause before her last case of the day, when a 16-year-old sporting purple Uggs and a pink North Face backpack appeared before her.
“Welcome to Midtown Community Court,” Mennin said, her voice warm as she spoke to the teen charged with attempting to shoplift a sweater and a T-shirt from Macy’s Herald Square last month.
“You’re here because you made some not-so-great choices,” she continued. “But you’ll have a chance to turn your life around, to start fresh, without the burden of a criminal record.”
Mennin’s final misdemeanor of the day was also her first case as the presiding judge in Manhattan’s youth court initiative.
The program, which had been based out of Manhattan's Criminal Court building until last week, targets 16- and 17-year-olds charged with the mostly low-level misdemeanors one might typically associate with teenagers: jumping subway turnstiles, shoplifting, and marijuana possession.
The idea behind the initiative is to limit the teens' exposure to a court system that’s hard to navigate and filled with older criminals often facing much more severe charges. Instead, the teens are placed before one judge who places intervention and rehabilitation — not simply punishment — as the primary focus, says Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Anthony Ferrara, who has run the program over the past several months.
It’s also a testing ground for a statewide youth court proposed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman last year.
The pilot program — running in nine courthouses across the state, including one in each borough since February — provides a family court approach to dealing with young offenders who Lippman and a growing number of supporters believe are too young for criminal court, but under current law, must be prosecuted as adults.
Aside from North Carolina, New York remains the only state that still charges 16-year-olds as adults, no matter what the offense.
The hope for the pilot program — and ultimately the proposed statewide youth court, which must still pass a vote in the state Legislature — is to use targeted programs and counseling to make substantive change in a teen’s life that may be heading off course, Ferrara says.
The youth court legislation would raise the age of criminality in New York for teens to 18 in cases of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
In youth court, Ferrara says, the goal is to help these kids change their ways by understanding some of the underlying issues behind their criminal behavior — and leave them without a permanent record.
As part of the once-a-week program, the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, as well as advocates for the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), an organization that provides tailored programs and jail alternatives for the young offenders, appear at the teens' hearings.
Most of the cases that passed before Ferrara, he says, have ended up with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, known as an ACD. This means if the teen completes his ordered service and stays out of trouble, the charges will be dropped.
Teaching bicycle safety to younger kids, working in a soup kitchen, or writing essays about their mistakes have all been programs used for the teens' alternative sentencing. Individual and group counseling may also play a role in the teen's court-mandated treatment.
The switch to the Midtown Community Court building, where only low-level offenses are handled, is mainly to streamline the program, Ferrara says.
Teens placed in the program are assessed and connected with targeted social and community service programs by CCI, which is housed in Midtown Community Court.
Ferrara said the teens also needed to report to the West 54th Street courthouse anyway as part of the sentence.
"It just makes it easier for the kids — have it all in one place," says Ferrara. "It’s one less step."
Some legal advocates, however, say Manhattan’s program needs to take more steps to aid young offenders.
“Manhattan DA’s office has only allowed the most low-level misdemeanors, what are called ‘quality of life’ offenses,” says Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s adolescent intervention and diversion program.
“Many of these kids need the help the program provides — it shouldn’t be based only on the [quality-of-life] charge,” she said.
Ginsburg says her lawyers tried to have a teen charged with misdemeanor assault for fighting in her high school placed in the initiative, but the DA's office shot them down.
“They’ve [the DA] announced they were going to expand the program, but I haven’t seen that yet.”
Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA's office, says District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., is a strong proponent of expanding the program in Manhattan and across the state — but says "the supporters of youth courts have generally agreed that violent offenses would not be eligible."
Vance was a co-chairman of the sentencing commission that helped craft the proposed legislation for the statewide youth court.
“Our present system of using adult court for 16- and 17-year-olds too often recycles low-level defendants without appropriate intervention, and has never provided an effective solution to nonviolent teen crime," Vance said in a statement. "It’s time for New York to recognize the emerging consensus throughout the nation that there is a more effective way for the criminal justice system to treat older teenagers. It will be better for teens, and will keep the streets safer for all of us.”
Ferrara says he hopes to see the program evolve, but understands the DA's possible concerns about cases that seem violent. "This is still a new program, and cases that involve assault, weapons — there's an added danger element there."
But in other pilot programs, like in Brooklyn, all misdemeanors are eligible — and one 17-year-old Crown Heights teen says she’s thankful for that.
The high school student was initially charged with assault, possession of stolen property and disorderly conduct for fighting with a fellow teen.
She pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of disorderly conduct and as part of her sentence, she was ordered to undergo extensive counseling — 24 individualized sessions.
"It's extremely exciting, the court in here," the teen said after her fourth appearance before Judge Joseph Gubbay. "They are able to give you second chance."
If she is able to successfully complete her treatment, Gubbay will give her an ACD and an eventual sealed record. When a future employer or college application asks about her criminal past, the young lady can say she has none.
Gubbay says these types of cases, the complex ones that involve fights, anger management problems, issues of responsibility are "the kinds of cases this court was designed to address."
"This court will not shy away from any misdemeanor," Gubbay said.
The teen's mother says she’s also extremely pleased with the program. "I see a big difference with her behavior already — everything. I'm so proud."
Parents are encouraged to take part in all the pilot programs, although it’s not required.
Sometimes parents aren’t around, the child is in foster care, or they are homeless. These are other issues that CCI can, and has, addressed through the young offender’s court-ordered counseling, according to Courtney Bryan, project director for CCI.
Bryan says an added benefit of placing teens in targeted placements — in lieu of slapping them with a random day of community service with adults — is that a number of the young people stick with programs, even after they’ve completed their sentences.
“We’ve had kids continue to volunteer with programs, or join a new internship or counseling program because they were exposed to the program through CCI,” Bryan says.
Overall, the feedback from the pilot programs has been overwhelmingly positive, says Judge Judy Harris Kluger, chief of policy and planning for New York State’s Unified Court System. Kluger helped institute the pilot programs across the state.
More than 2,000 cases have passed through the statewide initiative — Manhattan has had about 200 cases, according to Office of Court Administration data.
Every year, more than 40,000 16- and 17-year-olds come through criminal courts in New York State, and the vast majority of those cases are misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, more than 3,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested for misdemeanor charges in Manhattan between January and September of this year.
Kluger doesn't have recidivism data yet on the program, but programs are reporting that the majority of the teens complete their sentences.
Kluger says she thinks the pilot program will provide a shining example of the benefits that can come from such a program — and the relative ease with which the initiative has been incorporated into criminal court. That may come in handy when legislation to spread the youth courts statewide goes before lawmakers again in January.
Still, the major debate in Albany isn't necessarily whether the program works, but how it will be funded.
Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, says the legislation could add costs to the Department of Probation, along with increased state spending on services and programs for the teens.
But, Ginsburg says, every state that's revised their juvenile justice legislation has managed to move funds around.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's the cost of having children turn into hardened criminals — and repeat offenders that boomerang in and out of the system for decades.
"It may take some time and adjustment, but these are just growing pains," Ginsburg says. "I think most people realize that it's time for a fundamental change."