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For Douglas Van Zant and Alicia Barraza, the push to end the prosecution and punishment of juvenile offenders as adult criminals is personal and tragic. Their only child, Benjamin, killed himself in a New York State prison in 2015, ending a hellish four-year odyssey through the criminal justice system that began when he was 17 years old.
On Valentine’s Day, Benjamin’s parents plan to call for a change in the law to end the criminal prosecution of children as adults, by raising the age that offenders can be treated as adult criminals from 16 to 18.
Currently, New York and North Carolina are the only two states to prosecute and punish all 16 and 17 year-olds as criminal adults.
Van Zant and Barraza’s visit is part of a Raise the Age Legislative Awareness Day, a coordinated lobbying effort calling on ordinary citizens who support reform to come to the Capital, call on their elected representatives and make their voices heard. “I’ll be going around talking to the Assembly people and Senators and see if we can get them to support the bills,” Barraza told the Voice.
According to the New York City Bar Association, every year “approximately 40,000 16-and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in New York’s criminal courts, the vast majority for minor crimes.” If these 16 and 17-year-olds are detained or incarcerated because of a criminal court order, or fail to post bail, they are then confined in adult prisons and jails; 70 percent of those detained pre-trial are black or Latino, according to the Raise the Age coalition. Of those sentenced to prison, 80 percent are black or Latino.
In 2010, Benjamin Van Zant was 17 when he began hearing voices inside his head. The voices compelled him to light a neighbor’s unoccupied house on fire, he told police and his parents. Ben’s crime was his first offense. While out on bail, Ben received in-patient psychiatric treatment, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic depression.
Ben’s doctors prescribed anti-psychotic medication, and it worked. Ben adjusted, functioned well and was discharged, according to his parents. He was in the hospital for less than a month.
Nevertheless, David Soares, the Albany County District Attorney, insisted on prosecuting Benjamin as an adult, and insisted that he plead guilty and agree to a 4-to-12 year adult prison sentence. His office also refused to consider evidence that Ben was mentally ill, according to Barraza and van Zant.
Ben pled guilty, and was sentenced to 4-to-12 years in adult state prison. The Honorable Thomas A. Breslin of Albany County Court accepted Ben’s plea, and tacked on $455,000 in restitution.
Over the next four years in prison, Ben was raped, extorted, forced to mule drugs and repeatedly deprived of the anti-psychotic medications required to keep him stable, sane and alive, according to his parents, prison records reviewed by the Voice, and his attorney, Cheryl Kates-Benman, a lawyer who specializes in prison issues.
In 2014, he was transferred to the Fishkill Correctional Facility, where he was housed in a special unit for mentally-ill inmates. There, Ben repeatedly witnessed prison guards abuse other mentally-ill inmates.
After witnessing one particularly brutal beating, Ben feared for his life, and requested a transfer out of the prison. Instead, prison officials placed him in solitary confinement, where he hung himself. Days before, Ben told his attending psychologist, Brooke Merino, that he “would rather kill himself than be beaten to death,” according to Ben’s treatment record.
In 2015, a group of prison guards known as the “beat-down squad” killed Samuel Harrell, a mentally-ill inmate at Fishkill. Harrell’s death is under investigation by Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
After Ben’s death, prison officials failed to provide any information about it to his parents. “No one would talk to us,” Barraza bitterly recalls. “No one would talk with us. Everyone just gave us the runaround.”
New York State prison officials, Barraza said, also refused to allow her to see her dead son’s body until after an autopsy, because during that time “he ‘was still the property of DOCCS,’” she said, using the acronym for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
Van Zant and Barraza made their first appearance at the state legislature just 14 days after Ben’s death: “I’m Alicia Barazza,” she told an Assembly Committee, “this is my husband Doug Van Zandt, and we are the parents of a mentally ill inmate who very recently died in Special Housing Unit at the age of 21.”
“We were still in shock,” Barraza says of the appearance. “But we were also angry about Ben’s death, which could have been prevented, and with the disgraceful way DOCCS treated us after he died.”
The couple, Van Zant says, hopes some good comes from Ben’s death, in the form of the passage of Raise the Age legislation. “We have a chance to do something,” he says. “Getting involved in something where we can help other people … that’s something good that can be done here.”
“It’s disgraceful that the legislature hasn’t passed this bill and that New York State may be the last state in the country to do so,” Barraza told the Voice. “Their reasons for opposing the bill just don’t hold up to the facts but they keep spouting this nonsense. They are succumbing to political pressure from the statewide District Attorney’s association and the Correctional Officers union.”
But things may be changing. When reached for their view of the new Raise the Age reform push, the New York State Correction Officers Association, through James Miller, their communications director, said that it would not oppose the legislation.
“Our responsibility is care, custody and control. It’s not the role of the union when it comes down to whether Raise the Age legislation is good or not,” Miller told the Voice.
It’s also a good sign, Barraza says, that Governor Cuomo has made Raise the Age legislation a priority. “Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said during his State of the State address earlier this month. Cuomo followed that up by publishing an op-ed in the Daily News that also called for legislation that would raise the age.
Both of Ben’s parents rate the chances of passing reform this year as “good.” But that might be an uphill battle after Republicans were able to keep control of the New York State Senate with the help of the governor.
“We have a better chance this year than we did last year, especially since Governor Cuomo has made it a priority and supports it we have a good chance,” Barraza says. “The problem has always been in the Senate, the Republicans.”