Despite continuing efforts to change the law, in the state of New York, 16 and 17 year-old’s are still currently prosecuted as adults. But there’s one amazing project that taking making inroads in alternate sentencing.
Founded by Rachel Barnard as a socially-driven public art project, Young New Yorkers is a court-mandated diversion program that sees teens take up art classes as opposed to criminal charges in areas of New York. Raising the adult trial age to 18 has been in the works since 2012 but there’s yet to be official movement in the eyes of the law – that’s where Rachel’s program comes in. That 2012 push to “raise the age”, made way for the creation of Young New Yorker’s Adolescent Diversion Program (ADP), a special court for 16 and 17 year-olds.
“Young New Yorkers became the first arts-based court-mandated program for this special court,” Rachel tells Collective Hub. “YNY programs are an alternative sentencing option for 16 and 17 year-olds being tried in NY State as adults, and when participants graduate from our programs, their cases are typically dismissed and sealed, and they avoid a life-long adult criminal record.”
Running two court-mandated programs, a 1-Day Arts Diversion Program and an 8-Week Arts Diversion Program, as well as a roster of voluntary community programs, the programs end with an exhibition of the work of the diverted teens.
With partnership with departments like the New York Department of Probation, criminal and community courts and a district attorney’s office, there was a fair amount of trust building that went into creating lasting, impactful relationships.
“We are a grass roots organisation, and have built our partnerships on the ground floor. That is, in the court room,” Rachel explains. “When I started the organisation, my co-founder and I pulled together an incredible community, including three public defenders. Together, we approached Judge Joseph Gubbay at the bench before court began one morning and told him about our program proposal. He introduced us to his contacts, and two weeks later we had approval to be court-mandated, and were ready to go. We have worked hard and built a very good reputation with both the defense attorneys and prosecutors within the various courtrooms.”
Working hard to get their project off the ground was one obstacle – dealing with all that comes with starting a program as delicate and important as YNY.
“One of the biggest learning curves for me has been around the secondary trauma that I experience,” Rachel confesses. “Our young people’s challenging circumstances are often amplified and worsened by their criminal justice involvement, and they struggle to cope. For instance, one of my first students, who was a brilliant voice in class, his older brother was shot and killed. Part of the condition of this student’s plea deal (along with the YNY program) was that he remain drug-free. But he started using marijuana (largely, I imagine, to cope with his grief), and he was unable to get his case dismissed and sealed at the young age of 16.”
In the early days, for Rachel, her work seemed like just a drop in the ocean.
“When I [thought] of one of my students having a difficult time, I [thought] of the 20,000 other 16 and 17 year-olds being prosecuted as adults and become overwhelmed by the enormity and unfairness of it all.”
“Today, instead of being overwhelmed, I find our work to be both challenging and incredibly fulfilling. I am completely lit up by my extraordinary participants in class and feel lucky to being doing work that I love so much with a wonderful community.”
Some of the criminal charges that make teens eligible for the YNY program range from graffiti to jumping a subway turnstile to low-level assault cases. And no matter the charges, the diversion program has the same aim: to allow all the teens the choice to explore aspects of their life that may be troubling them.
“The participants design [their work] around a social justice issue that is important to them—for example, gun violence in Brownsville, or young people in solitary confinement,” Rachel explains. “Our criminal justice partners (judges, assistant district attorneys, defense attorneys) come to the exhibition and get a chance to re-meet the participants as creative members of New York City.”
Once they’ve finished their program, the teen’s work is exhibited to the community which often includes the participants’ lawyers, the prosecutors, judges and court staff.
“The participants have not had a lot of experience advocating for themselves, or having their points of view heard by those within what is normally a large and overwhelming system. At the exhibitions, they have the opportunity to have their voices heard.”
But it doesn’t just break a barrier for the kids.
“Our criminal justice partners love the exhibitions,” adds Rachel. “They have an opportunity to meet our young people beyond their rap sheets. The exhibitions are a much-needed space of acknowledgement and celebration within the criminal justice system.”
Today, Young New Yorkers will hold a silent auction which will funnel funds directly into the court-mandated diversion programs. The art auctions came about as the program received widespread support from the local street art community and as a result of that support, it remains the single greatest source of income for the program.
The team are currently working to create a greater awareness of the struggles of their teens beyond the criminal justice system, Rachel and her team are looking to intensify the number of programs they’re currently offering in Brooklyn in order to reach as many teens as possible with their transformative project.
“I’m proud of the magic that happens at every exhibition when actors within the criminal justice system laugh and connect with the young people embroiled in that system,” Rachel says. “Watching a young person explain [their] ideas around the complex issues to the very lawyer who is prosecuting her—it moves me every time.”