NEW YORK — Last summer, a group of teens enrolled in a program at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice decided to take on what they see as an unfair practice in a recently released video called “Because I’m 16.”
“Because I’m 16, I can’t drive at night,” a teen says as the video begins. It lists other things you can’t do as a 16-year-old — drink, smoke, buy a lottery ticket, see an R-rated movie.
“Because I’m 16, I can’t sit on a jury,” another teen says, “but I can be tried as an adult.”
“I can get a lifetime criminal record,” a third says.
“Because I’m 16, my mother had to sign this consent form so that I could participate in this video,” one says.
“But I can go to Rikers Island.”
New York is one of only two states in the United States that tries young people 16 and older as adults. If convicted, these 16- and 17-year-olds go to adult prisons. Studies have shown that young people who go through the adult system are at high risk for sexual assault in prison and are much more likely to reoffend than young people who go through the juvenile system.
The short video is a collaboration between Judge Michael Corriero, who is director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, the teens from the center’s summer program and filmmaker TJ Parsell, who has some experience with this issue himself.
“At 17, I robbed a photo mat with a toy gun and spent four years in an adult prison, from 17 to 21,” Parsell said. “So I have a personal involvement with it, and I just think kids don’t belong in adult prisons.”
Parsell said his activism on the issue led him to collaborate with Corriero and the teens.
“The kids came up with the idea, they wrote it, they appear in it and they are so authentic,” Parsell said. “It was just a matter of getting out of their way.”
The video is part of a broader movement to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York and to “judge children as children,” which is Corriero’s motto. Corriero laid out many of his reasons behind raising the age, and for other reforms in the juvenile justice system in his book, “Judging Children As Children: A Proposal for a Juvenile Justice System.”
For Parsell, it was a chance to work on a project that meant a lot to him, and it clearly meant a lot to the teens involved, too, he said.
“Everyone had their heart in it” Parsell said, “and I think it shows.”