By Emily Nonko, Contributing Writer
Until this year, New York and North Carolina, were the only states that prosecuted all youth as adults once they turned 16. The Raise the Age law, which went into full effect in New York in October, has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18.
The law is set to change thousands of lives: before Raise The Age passed, every year nearly 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds faced possible prosecution as adults in criminal court. But the law is not retroactive, so the change doesn’t extend to those most impacted by adult prosecution for youths. Those sentenced as adults when they were 16 and 17 will not see any change to the status of their sentence.
Dontie Mitchell, now incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, NY, is one such person. Mitchell was a first time felony offender at age 17, sentenced to 35 to 70 years in prison. Now 39, he has spent over half his life incarcerated for a robbery during which, he says, no one was hurt.
“The Raise the Age law says that at a certain age, you’re not as culpable as older people,” he said. “My life story fits that category.” Indeed, momentum for Raise the Age came after research into brain development revealed the human brain is not fully formed until 25. Mitchell added he had a turbulent childhood in foster homes and a homeless shelter before committing his crime.
He recalled fears as a teenager entering the adult prison system and the lack of age-sensitive rehabilitation for youth offenders. Years later, as Raise the Age took shape, “there wasn’t enough input from the real-life people affected,” he said. “Amnesty should be given to youth offenders … that is a blind spot of the law.”
Mitchell mentors youth offenders already in the adult system, like Austin Parker, 20, and Alvin Marrero, 19. When Parker was 17 he entered a segregated juvenile unit within Coxsackie Correctional Facility, in Coxsackie, NY, then transferred into an adult facility on his 18th birthday. Prior to Raise the Age, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo separated youths from adults within adult prisons in 2015, to offer them “a better chance at turning their lives around and becoming productive members of society,” he said in a statement
Parker didn’t find those opportunities in the juvenile unit. “No one really paid attention to what we were doing,” he said. “I was not prepared mentally or socially to enter [the adult system].”
Marrero, now incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in Romulus, NY, entered the system at age 16 and is now 19. “This is a violent environment,” he said. “Being young, I’m a small person, and you’ve gotta stick up for yourself.”
This year, all 16 and 17-year olds were moved out of adult facilities in New York City and State — but nothing has changed for Mitchell, Parker or Marrero.
In the political push-and-pull of criminal justice reform, retroactivity is a complicated subject, said Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare at the Children’s Defense Fund -New York. The closest thing New York offers to retroactive reform is the opportunity for some past offenders, crime free for 10 years since the end of their sentence, to apply for clemency.
Davis said the next few years will be dedicated to Raise the Age implementation — transferring 16- and 17-year-old offenders into family court — as well as “collecting information that we can use for future reform.” Advocate’s goals for 2020 include closing the adolescent offender facilities within state prisons, ending solitary confinement for youth — part of a larger movement to end solitary confinement across New York prisons — and ending prosecution of children under 12.
Mitchell, meanwhile, continues to speak out about youth still trapped in the adult system. While he has earned public support of a “Free Dontie Mitchell” campaign, his commutation applications to Governor Cuomo have gone unanswered.
“For the bill not to be retroactive is not only shortsighted but unjust,” he said. “Cuomo keeps saying New York should be a ‘progressive beacon for the nation’ — then we can start by giving justice to our disadvantaged youth.”