NEW YORK—On June 18, two 14-year-old boys clashed outside of their Bronx school in a confrontation that left one of them dead and the other facing the prospect of being incarcerated with adults.
Noel Estevez fatally stabbed Timothy Crump after months of allegedly being bullied and tormented at the hands of multiple students. He also has a history of domestic instability and mental illness. Charged as an adult with second-degree murder, he now faces the possibility of spending decades behind bars.
Estevez’s case is a poignant reminder of New York state’s controversial approach to juvenile justice. Though most states in the United States have statutes that allow for minors to be tried as adults under certain circumstances, New York and North Carolina alone prosecute those 16 and up as adults as a matter of course.
In an unusual move, Noel is expected to take the stand in his own defense. According to the Bronx district attorney, on June 30 Noel will testify before a grand jury where he is expected to recount the experiences that led to his alleged fatal act.
Children are generally not deemed “criminally responsible,” said Terry Raskyn, director of public information for the Bronx district attorney’s office. However, where serious charges such as murder are concerned, intent is presumed, and the adult court is considered “best to handle it.”
The grand jury has the discretion at any point to indict or refer the case to juvenile court, depending on the circumstances of the case. With respect to Noel’s hearing, the circumstances surrounding the alleged stabbing are still being established. In Raskyn’s words, they are “slap in the middle of it” and still in the process of interviewing witnesses.
An advocacy collective, Raise the Age New York, aimed at raising the age of criminal responsibility, provides bitter examples of the fallout experienced by people who, as juveniles, were dealt adult convictions.
One woman describes being arrested at 16 for fighting, being charged as an adult, and convicted of a felony. As a consequence, she believes she has repeatedly been denied jobs as well as rental assistance to get affordable housing for her daughter and herself.
“I feel like I walk around with an ‘F’ for felony on my chest for a mistake I made when I was just 16,” she states on the organization’s website.
In another account, a man sent to Riker’s Island at 16 describes being victimized within his first two days of arrival, “He hit me from this way, another one hit me from behind.”
According to Raise the Age, nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds in New York face prosecution as adults in criminal court each year, predominantly for minor crimes. Their website also states that over 600 children from 13 to 15 years old are prosecuted in adult courts—diminishing their life prospects before they’ve started high school.
Adults Versus Minors
In the case of Estevez, given his personal circumstances, presents a particularly extreme case, according to Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at Brooklyn Law School. Godsoe, formerly of the Legal Aid Society, used to represent young people in delinquency cases.
“Given the background, the bullying, and perhaps that he has mental illness, there are a lot of mitigating factors where he shouldn’t necessarily have been charged as an adult,” said Godsoe on Thursday.
She added that a second-degree murder charge is the highest murder offense possible unless you’ve done something like kill a police officer.
Though New York state does not have the death penalty, it’s still extremely risky for a young person to be tried in a criminal court, rather than family court, where juvenile cases typically go.
“The consequences are really severe if you’re convicted as an adult … on basically every aspect of life—jobs, housing, immigration,” said Godsoe. “The biggest difference from the juvenile system is the stigma. In the juvenile system your record is sealed, and it doesn’t count against you.”
If found guilty as a juvenile, punishment can only continue until age 21, and the youth are relatively safer in a juvenile detention facility. If a juvenile is tried as an adult and convicted, he or she faces numerous risks from being incarcerated with adults.
“Even though they’re supposed to be segregated … there’s still much greater risk for being assaulted and for suicidal tendencies.”
The Adolescent Brain
Estevez’s case comes at a time when advocates and legislators are pressing for change. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his 2014 State of the State speech in January, committed to addressing the state’s law on trying juvenile offenders.
“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” said Cuomo. “It’s not right, it’s not fair—we must raise the age.” Just a few months later, true to his promise in that speech, he formed a commission on youth public safety and justice.
Cuomo’s stance is in line with extensive research, which shows that the juvenile mind, up to the age of 25, lacks the culpability of the adult mind.
Several factors come into play when the juvenile commits wrongdoing: their lack of ability to control impulses, shortsightedness, and susceptibility to peer pressure.
According to the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, studies show that particularly in high-pressure crime situations, the ability of the adolescent to make sound judgments is seriously impaired.
The Supreme Court agrees. Over the past decade, three landmark cases have established that juveniles and adults cannot be treated the same. Part of the reasoning lies in the court’s view that a youth who committed a crime still has a chance to make a meaningful contribution to society later in life.
“There’s more possibility for them to be rehabilitated,” said Godsoe.
A whole generation of young adults could potentially be wiped out from Harlem’s projects, said Elsie Chandler, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in reference to the recent gang arrests that occurred there in early June. Chandler lamented the damaging personal impact of the existing juvenile offender laws.
“A kid who’s happy doesn’t go out and commit a crime; it’s not humanly satisfying to go out and hurt somebody,” Chandler said.