NYC Youth and Supporters Call for Enhanced Legal Protections

At Wednesday’s rally to support youth justice bills, Charisma Adams spoke about her “dehumanizing” interrogation at age 15. Photo by Susanti Sarkar.

Dozens of youth, legal advocates and community leaders gathered at a Bronx park Wednesday in support of legislation to increase protections for minors interrogated by police and create alternatives to incarceration for older youth. The “speakout” was as much a community celebration as political protest over injustice, featuring face-painting, a raffle and free books and tiny pumpkins for kids. 

But the reason for the gathering was somber. 

People who’d been arrested or imprisoned as teenagers drew on personal experiences to voice support for two pivotal youth justice bills headed to the state Legislature: #Right2RemainSilent and the Youth Justice and Opportunities Act.

“Treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults increases the likelihood of them experiencing a lifelong burden for their actions during a time when they’re still developing and learning from their mistakes,” said one youth speaker, Udell Fleurant, who grew up in Harlem. 

Fleurant said he was wrongfully interrogated by police when he was 16 for fraud, after being accused of periodically taking over his father’s UberEats deliveries. He narrowly avoided further legal trouble, he added, because a police officer who knew him from a neighborhood football league helped avoid an arrest.

The “speakout,” which included face-painting, raffles and give-aways, was a public show of support for two pivotal youth justice bills headed to the state Legislature. Photo by Susanti Sarkar.

Charisma Adams, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, described being arrested when she was 15 and spending three months in juvenile detention. She said the police interrogation was “dehumanizing,” and her words were twisted into incriminating leading questions — even with a lawyer present.

“You just say things because you’re scared of the police and want to get away,” Adams said in an interview at the event.

As New York prepares for the upcoming legislative session in January, youth and parent advocates are joining justice reformers to push the state to align its laws with brain science and civil rights. Extensive research shows decision-making, ability to foresee consequences, and impulse control are not fully developed until the mid-20s. They argue those facts must be considered in proceedings when children and young adults are accused of committing crimes. 

Advocates say the legislation pushed by Democrats in the state Legislature, first introduced in 2019, is needed due to what supporters describe as the coercive nature of police interrogations that push youth to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, entangling young lives in the justice system at an early age.

One proposed bill, known as #Right2RemainSilent, would ensure that arrested minors have access to an attorney before being questioned by police. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jamaal Bailey and Assemblymember Latoya Joyner. Under the legislation, parents must be notified upon a child’s arrest, and children would have the right to consult with an attorney in person, by phone or video before an interrogation. A judge could suppress the use of any statements in court if the child had made them before such legal counsel was offered.

“Access to legal counsel can be the difference between the fair delivery of justice and an unjust outcome that can forever alter the life of a young person and entire communities,” Bailey said in a statement to The Imprint. “Racial and economic disparities in justice involvement leave Black and brown youth particularly vulnerable to egregious miscarriages of justice that can result in false confessions, wrongful convictions, and lasting trauma.” 

The Youth Justice and Opportunities Act, S3426, is sponsored by Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell. The legislation creates a “young adult offender status” for those ages 19 through 25 for all but the most serious cases, capping sentences at a maximum of four years. Similar to adolescents’ rights, these young adults would also have greater access to more detention alternatives and an opportunity to seal their records. 

Ikim Powell, an alumni facilitator at Exalt — a New York City-based organization that mentors youth who’ve been involved in the criminal justice system — expressed his support for the bill. Powell was first arrested when he was 13 years old, he said, and spent time at Rikers Island as a 16-year-old. 

“Everybody deserves second chances,” Powell said. “We should reconsider from a societal level why we need to incarcerate instead of rehabilitate.”

Youth advocate Ikim Powell, who spent time at Rikers Island as a youth, expressed support for the Youth Justice and Opportunities Act. Photo by Susanti Sarkar.

Attorneys, national research organizations, lawmakers, justice advocates and at least one retired family court judge support a minor’s right to remain silent during interrogation and underscore the need for age-appropriate protections for young adults found to have broken the law. In New York, senators and assembly members have co-sponsored the bills to ensure these rights.

Data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that children tend to falsely confess to crimes at higher rates than adults. Among the exonerated defendants surveyed in 2022, 78% were under 14 years of age when they confessed.

“They want to say whatever they think might allow them to go home in the moment, and police are allowed to lie to them,” said Special Litigation Director Lisa Freeman of New York City’s Legal Aid Society.

Several youth corroborated that seeing police officers around their neighborhoods was a common occurrence –– friends and families stopped by police because of their clothes or race, who often did not really understand the concept of waiving their Miranda rights.

New York State data from 2020 showed that youth of color represented more than 70% of youth in state lockups, though they make up only 42% of the under-18 population.

“The police come after us based on our color, and that’s not the right way to look at a kid,” Fleurant said. “These kids don’t have the kind of support they need, because nobody’s really there for them.”

Udell Fleurant said he was wrongfully interrogated by police at age 16. Photo by Susanti Sarkar.

Protection of a minor’s right to counsel before and during interrogations has been implemented in California, Maryland, Washington and, as of July, Hawaii.

But in New York, the legislation has met resistance. Last year, Sen. Patrick Gallivan was among those who voted down similar legislation in a Senate Codes Committee meeting. In a previous interview, the Republican lawmaker’s spokesperson told The Imprint that #Right2RemainSilent was “overly burdensome on law enforcement.”

Sen. Anthony Palumbo, who was also present for the vote, told The Imprint, “Current law adequately protects the rights of individuals while balancing the need of investigators to do their job.”

Advocates are hopeful for passage of the bills in the upcoming legislative sessions –– the Right to Remain Silent bill has gathered more support in both houses than in the past, Freeman said, strengthened by letters of support from judges and law enforcement representatives.

If passed, the Youth Justice and Opportunities Act would take effect in November 2025 and the right-to-remain silent bill in April 2025. The taxpayer costs of both pieces of legislation have not been fully determined.

“This is an important step we can take to improve equity in our justice system,” Assemblymember Joyner said in a statement to The Imprint. “And the public support we are seeing for this legislation shows just how much this is needed.”

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