Westchester Children’s Association received a grant through the Westchester Community Foundation to teach two Teen Advocacy Leadership courses. We employed our Social Work Intern, Linnea Leger, to take the lead on this initiative. We focused the advocacy lessons around one of our priority issues, Raise the Age (click here to learn more about RTA). The first post is from Linnea, as a reflection of her experience teaching and inspiring the young people. Following that, we will feature guest posts from our young advocates. This series will continue through the month of March. We hope you enjoy their stories as much as we do.
Linnea Leger, Social Work Intern, Westchester Children’s Association
As the social work intern at WCA, I have had the opportunity to develop the curriculum for and teach two cohorts of the Teen Advocacy Leadership program. This program has given me the opportunity to become an expert on raising the age of criminal responsibility (RTA) in New York from 16 to 18. It was inspiring to educate young people about the issues facing other youth in the criminal justice system of New York State, and to help inspire them to tackle big issues that affect their lives through advocacy.
As I come to the end of the second cohort, I feel very lucky that I have had the opportunity to work with two very different groups of individuals. The first session was comprised of White Plains High School students, who are also members of the Youth Court program, and young men from the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester. This group had over 20 young people with great variance in age, educational level, and personal involvement in the criminal justice system. As my pilot class, I was forced to think intentionally and creatively to ensure that I addressed this diverse group in a way that was engaging and accessible to everyone. Throughout the three sessions with this group, I was able to hone and improve my own skills as a presenter and facilitator while also watching as the group used their new skills and knowledge about RTA to host engaging discussions and participate in actionable advocacy activities.
The second cohort that I had the privilege of facilitating was a group of eight high school students from New Rochelle, most of whom were already involved and experienced advocates in their own right. This group was closer in age and educational level, and their small size afforded us the opportunity to discuss advocacy and RTA more in-depth. Facilitating this group has been a completely different experience from facilitating the first group, and I am thankful that I have been fortunate enough to have experienced both.
It is an understatement to say that I am incredibly proud of each and every one of the young adults that I have met through this program. Each person has brought their own experiences and worldviews to the table, shown respect to their peers and accepted the differences among them. I have been impressed by the initiative and interest that they have taken to this important topic, even if they themselves have never been impacted by the criminal justice system.
I now realize the need for more comprehensive reform to be made in order to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York. Several of the participants I met had personal experiences in the criminal justice system, but were afforded an opportunity to participate in the incredible Youth Shelter Program of Westchester, which serves as an alternative to incarceration. These young men are no different from any other young person who has found themselves in trouble with the law except that they have been afforded the opportunity to be rehabilitated and given a second chance. In the following days and weeks, you will hear their stories and stories of other young people through this blog. This series will spotlight the insight these young people have about why we need to raise the age and how their own personal experiences relate to their advocacy. Raising the age will ensure that all young people who find themselves involved in the justice system will be given the same opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reach their full potential, becoming productive members of society. We should not punish 16- and 17-year-olds for their youthful mistakes in ways that will negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. Young people deserve the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in ways that are rehabilitative and developmentally appropriate. It was an honor for me to work with these young people, and it has given me hope that there are people who are ready and willing to take on large world issues when the opportunity arises.
Guest Blog Post #1
D.R., Youth Shelter Program of Westchester
I support the Raise the Age campaign for many reasons. I think it’s important to properly manage youth incarceration when it comes to the adult system. Everyone knows kids make mistakes. Those mistakes shouldn’t be held against them for the rest of their lives. Here’s a story about why I think the age should be raised.
When I was 17, I ran into trouble with some friends that would change the course of my life up until this day. I was 17 when I graduated high school, and I decided that I wanted to join the military. So I met with a recruiter and started the process of taking the exam to get started (ASFAB). I had taken and passed the exam, and I was finally on my way to turning my life into something.
The process of joining the military isn’t a quick one, so I had a few months before officially joining. On November 2nd of 2013, I got arrested for robbery along with other charges with three of my friends at the time. That was my first time ever getting in trouble with the law, and I spent 16 months incarcerated, with 5 years’ probation.
Because I was charged as an adult, I had to be dormed with adults. That whole experience changed my mental state completely. Out of the 16 months that I served, I spent 6 months in solitary confinement. I received solitary because I got in two fights back-to-back in two days, therefore I was labeled a menace to the general population. Somehow, my lawyer though it was an appropriate punishment because of safety reasons. So you could only imagine how trapped I felt. It wasn’t a good feeling for a 17 year old. I thought I would never get out.
The day did come when I finally got out, it was weird adjusting to my environment, but luckily I had a good support system. If it wasn’t for that, then I could have easily gotten rearrested for anything. It was the most vulnerable state I’ve ever been in. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to make my life better. Now I have to deal with probation, which automatically makes me ineligible to join the military. This one bad decision I made put a hold on what I wanted to do with my life.
Now all of this is coming to be end, I’ll be free soon from probation. Soon I will have nothing holding on to my life for good. I was granted youthful offender status (meaning my record will be sealed) for my charge, but everyone isn’t as fortunate as I was. If the age had already been raised, I would be somewhere more positive in my life, probably doing what I always wanted to do.
So in all, I’m still paying the price at 21 for a mistake I made when I was 17. I don’t think anyone should go through what I did at such a young age. I feel the Raise the Age campaign is crucial and should be taken into consideration. If there is any chance that I could prevent a kid from being incarcerated with and as an adult, I would do it without hesitation—not only for us, but for that individual’s future as part of our community.
WCA would like to thank the Westchester Community Foundation for their generous support of the Teen Advocacy Leadership program.