NYU Torch Series Launches With Juvenile Justice Discussion

On Tuesday, April 29, the inaugural event of the New York University Torch Series was held at the NYU School of Law’s Furman Hall. Conceived by Jennifer Glass, MSW ’15, as a “graduate student cross-pollination initiative” between different schools within the University, the first Torch Series was co-hosted by the NYU Silver School of Social Work Graduate Student Association and the NYU Law’s Student Bar Association. The event focused on issues surrounding the juvenile justice system, and featured a moderated panel of both social work and legal experts and a reception to encourage further dialogue.

As Glass described it, “The Torch Series is conceptualized as a forum for a cross-disciplinary discussion between students, faculty, and working professionals. The dialogue will focus on social, political, and environmental issues that impact, and are impacted by, various fields of practice. For each Torch Series event, two NYU graduate schools will assemble a panel of professionals, professors, and students to speak about a mutually agreed upon issue from their discipline’s perspective. Panelists will also discuss implications for best practice in their respective fields of study.”

In an opening statement, NYU Silver Dean Lynn Videka praised the series as a “wonderful interprofessional learning idea. True to NYU spirit, it’s led by students, who are the most energizing, innovation-producing aspects of academic institutions.” Uniting the schools of law and social work seemed especially apt, Videka continued, due to their “mutual commitment to social justice.”

Following Videka’s remarks, panelist Yuval Sheer, deputy director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice, played a video PSA advocating raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York State from 16 to 18. Jackie Deane, director of delinquency training and practice at the Legal Aid Society, expounded on the importance of changing this legislation: “New York is one of only two states in the country that defines 16 year olds as ‘adults’ for criminal justice purposes. And I’m going to use quotes because I certainly don’t think they’re adults.” Deane continued, “Family court jurisdiction goes as low as seven. So [age of criminal responsibility] needs to be raised on the bottom end, too.”

The panelists discussed the pervasive and abounding misconceptions surrounding family court. As Deane put it, “There is a myth that family court is a benevolent guiding hand working to redirect children back to the right path. Unfortunately, that has not been the case historically.” Panelist Phil Coltoff, former director of the Children’s Aid Society and current Katherine W. and Howard Aibel Visiting Professor and Executive-in-Residence at NYU Silver, seconded this: “It would almost be better to describe this part of our work as juvenile injustice.”

The New York City Family Court, established in 1961, was originally designed as both a court and a social service agency, and this dual role has allowed the legal system to ignore the obvious need for a separate social service delivery system, despite staggering recidivism and outcomes statistics for individuals who are brought into the juvenile justice system. And these statistics, Coltoff argued, are misleadingly low and inaccurate. While current statistics state that only 18 percent of students do not graduate high school, this only accounts for students who began high school, and does not include students who dropped out in middle school or earlier. As Coltoff explained, “You have to get to high school to make that 18 percent statistic… This nation is not kind to its children. We do not blame the institutional forces at work; we blame the young people.”

Panelist Clifton Hall, a case manager at the Center for Community Alternatives and program writer at How Our Lives Link Altogether (HOLLA), reflected on his own experiences with the juvenile justice system, and how these influence the work he does today with youth in the system. “I had my first contact with the juvenile justice system at 12,” he shared. Today, he runs anger replacement training workshops for juvenile offenders, and often asks participants to think of alternative ways out of angering situations. “Their answers drive home just how young and immature they truly are,” Hall stated. Hall also emphasized the need for restorative justice programs of longer durations, as current program lengths (generally around two months) are unrealistic given the length of the behavior history that brought the individuals into the system in the first place.

Sheer piggybacked on Hall’s comments about the emotional immaturity and developmental transience of youths in the juvenile justice system. “If a youth is punished for something, six or seven months down the road, he or she is no longer the same person.” Coltoff agreed, and urged the audience members to reach out to community organizations like the Y, Settlement House, and Boys and Girls Club of America and force them to take a more active role in supporting their community members: “These agencies receive $16.1 billion a year in government aid, but few are serving individuals in the juvenile justice system. They see themselves as serving ‘kids who behave themselves.’” Coltoff appealed: “Your obligation is to open up your doors to your young people, because they are in your neighborhood and deserve to be in your programs. They are not aliens.”

The panelists closed out the evening with a discussion on what systemic and policy-oriented changes need to be sought. All agreed on the importance of changing United States justice perspectives to incorporate preventive services. As Deane described it, “There need to be more front-end services. Because the juvenile justice system should not be a social service delivery system. Because the juvenile justice system is about depriving people of their liberty in a very significant way.”

Glass plans to continue the Torch series next year, and looks forward to future collaborations with other NYU schools. As panelists and audience members mingled at the event reception over wine and cheese, the hum of impassioned conversation was palpable. Glass shared, “I could not be more proud that Torch Series has been so embraced NYU wide.” She noted the University-wide effort required to make the Torch Series a reality: Ethan McCooper, MSW ’14, and an NYU Silver Graduate Student Association senator; the NYU Student Senators Council; and the University Committee on Senate Life. The inaugural event was organized by Glass, McCooper, and the Student Senators Council Graduate Affairs Committee, and co-sponsored by the Office of Graduate Life at the Student Resource Center.

“I am especially proud that Torch Series was born, so aptly, at Silver, in the social work spirit of collaboration, community building, and open communication about important issues," said Glass.