After spending a night and the entirety of the next day cold and scared in New York City’s 61st Precinct, Daryl was ready to go home. [Editor’s note: We are not using Daryl’s last name because he is a minor.]
But, about 24 hours after he was arrested, when the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office presented him with his first plea bargain, that hope was crushed. If he admitted his guilt, he would serve only one to three years, which seemed like an eternity for the 15-year-old. During the time leading up to his arrest in September 2012 he had worked on becoming a musician and a dancer and was devastated by the idea of leaving the performing arts scene he had fought so hard to break into.
When he arrived at his second court appointment about a week later, the situation looked bleaker. The lawyer who had helped him the first time was missing, and then Frederic Pratt approached him and his grandmother to tell them he was the new attorney.
Pratt works for the Legal Aid Society, an organization which contracts with New York City to serve as the de facto public defender. He typically takes over juvenile cases for his colleagues after they have represented the client in the initial arraignment, but Daryl was too flustered to retain that information. He didn’t trust Pratt. He seemed too calm in a situation where Daryl was racked with panic.
“The rest of my life is over,” he thought. “I’m going to die in jail.”
Although Daryl was only 15 years old at the time of his arrest, he was charged and tried as an adult. New York is one of two states in the nation that tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, but there are some crimes for which even younger teens become ineligible to go through family court.
For 13-year-olds, these must be extremely serious offenses—murder, kidnapping or arson—but for 14- and 15-year-olds, like Daryl, other offenses like robbery, burglary and assault, are included. For the teenager, this meant that all the options he would have access to in family court were inaccessible; in adult court he and Pratt were automatically left with two possibilities.
“We have probation, and we have jail,” Pratt said.
At the court, Pratt discussed the situation with Daryl and his grandmother, with whom he lives, explaining that he would likely be able to avoid jail time. But Daryl could barely focus. His thoughts, he said, kept coming back to the plea bargain, to his grandfather who had bounced in and out of jail throughout his mother’s life, and to a future that was beginning to look hopeless.
“So many thoughts were flying through my head,” he said. “I thought I might end up like my grandfather.”
Daryl was charged with robbery in the second degree. The details of the incident are etched in his mind, especially since he wrote and rewrote them at the request of the police.
He recalls walking with his friend in mid-September 2012, through the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, when he tapped a woman on the shoulder to ask her for the time. He says she swung at him with her umbrella, and startled, he grabbed it to stop her. In handing the umbrella back to her, she backed up and fell, and his friend began to attack her, hitting her in the face repeatedly.
As Daryl protested, he said, his friend hit the woman harder. When his friend grabbed her bag, pushing it into Daryl’s chest and telling him to run, he did. He tossed it almost immediately, he said, but it didn’t take long for the police to find him.
“I just knew I was going to jail,” he said. “This is going to be like on TV. I’m going to jail.”
In addition to his fear of stepping away from the arts scene he’d been fighting to be a part of, there were other, more daunting reasons he was terrified of jail time. By the time Daryl met Pratt, his visible wounds had healed, but he was emotionally scarred from his alleged beating by the police.
The first time the police officer tried to stop him, he didn’t resist. Although he was scared, he said he remained still, even when another officer arrived and started to threaten him verbally, cracking his knuckles as he approached the teenager. Daryl said he pleaded with the officer not to hurt him, but as the violent threats escalated and the officer got closer, he panicked and ran.
He said he recalls later drifting in and out of consciousness in the back of a police van and then in the precinct. A cold, dripping sensation trickled in his lower back. His face bled from where he said the officer had repeatedly kicked him, and his shoulder throbbed from two gashes. He said he held his body as still as he could, afraid of the pain motion might bring.
The experience shattered his faith in the police, who he says he had never before distrusted.
“I felt broken,” he said. “I felt like I was crumbling.”
The NYPD declined to comment on this story.
As is typical of the situation, the case travelled slowly through the system with monthly appointments in court, and Pratt successfully helped Daryl avoid incarceration. He was also fortunate to avoid a felony on his record, as some in his position do, instead receiving the alternative “Youthful Offender” or “YO” status. He was required to enroll in a local program called Center for Community Alternatives, where he adhered to a strict curfew and regular drug tests, and will remain on probation.
For Daryl, the program has been successful. He doesn’t find the drug tests a problem, because he doesn’t use drugs, but the curfew has been a challenge. He spends his spare time rapping and dancing—a talent which has earned him the artist name “Young Michael,” from his Michael Jackson impersonations—and at times has had to ask for special permission to stay out late to perform.
He has been so successful in the program that he was granted a permanent curfew extension, and Pratt has requested that he stop having court appointments since he must miss school to do so. They hope that the probation will be shortened from the minimum sentence of five years to two or three.
Daryl believes this was not just a good option for him, but that programs like this need to be further developed because avoiding incarceration is in most cases the best option.
“I feel like if jail is supposed to rehab someone, why keep them isolated from the world,” he said. “Jail really isn’t helping anyone.”
In 2012, a new initiative called “Close to Home” began in New York City to bring upstate facilities back into the city, thereby keeping children in their communities. By the time Daryl was arrested in September 2012, there were 30 small, non-secure facilities downstate. But because his crime is classified as an adult crime, he would not have been eligible for one of these. This is one of the reasons that Pratt is also a supporter of raising the age at which people are tried as adults. For his clients, there are two options: They will receive probation or be sent to jail.
Although Ronald Richter, commissioner of NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services, sees the benefit of family court, especially for helping children to stay in their communities and continue their education, he also believes there are advantages in certain cases for minors who are tried as adults. For 16- and 17-year-olds who are charged with petty crimes, such as graffiti or possession of a small amount of marijuana, the repercussions are less serious than they would be for a 15-year-old being tried in a family court.
“The adult system is designed to work for adults,” he said. “A lot of crimes get sort of flushed out of the adult system. They’re sort of little fish in a big pond.”
For Pratt, one of the biggest concerns is that even for those who receive sentences aimed at rehabilitation and successfully complete their programs, the issues that led them to trouble haven’t changed.
In other words, Daryl’s success story is the exception, he says, not the rule.
“You have to think about the bigger picture, what’s going to happen to the kid in life, what are the prospects for the kid,” he said. “I have great hopes that he’s going to do great things, but his is really an exceptional case.”
Produced by the New York Bureau.