By Dana Goldstein
The Marshall Project
On Feb. 1, 2016, a Brooklyn jury convicted Kahton Anderson of second-degree murder and other charges in the death of Angel Rojas. Anderson slumped with his head in his hands and his mother cried in the courtroom gallery when the verdict was read, according to published reports. Even some members of the jury teared up, the reports said. Kahton, 16 at the time of his conviction, faces a sentence of 15 years to life at his sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 18.
The youth homicide rate has declined by more than one-third since the early 1990s, alongside similar reductions in adult crime. Yet according to the most recent National Youth Gang Center survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, gang-related killings in large cities actually increased by 35 percent between 2007 and 2012. Today, most gang members, like Kahton, are between the ages of 12 and 24 and have only tenuous connections, if any, to organized crime.
In New York City, overall crime rates remain low, but shootings have increased over the past two years. Police say an estimated 40 percent of homicides are related to teen street crews like Stack Money Goonz and the Twan Family. In 2012, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton announced Operation CrewCut. The department’s gang unit doubled in size from 150 to 300 officers, and over the next two years, more than 400 crew members were indicted on charges ranging from drug and weapons possession to assault and murder. Some detectives spent the majority of their working hours combing through teenagers’ social media posts for tips and evidence. In the 79th precinct, more than 250 Facebook accounts are monitored at any one time.
This crackdown coincided with a movement to make juvenile justice more humane. Just a few weeks after Kahton shot Angel Rojas, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice. “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said in his 2014 State of the State address, promising to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility to 18. Cuomo was joining a national trend. In light of datashowing that juveniles sentenced as adults are more likely to be re-arrested and incarcerated than those sentenced in family court regardless of the severity of their crime, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Mississippi, and Connecticut have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility in recent years, though all those states excluded at least some violent felonies, especially murder, from being processed in family courts. New Jersey is currently considering barring all 14-year-old defendants, including those like Kahton who are accused of murder, from being charged as adults.
Picture: Bill Bradford (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons