Protecting the Constitutional Rights of Minority Youth on Rikers Island

Johnson, Loretta A.

In 2014, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York released a report on their investigation into the patterns and practices of treatment of adolescent inmates on Rikers Island, finding systemic defects that result in the pervasive violation of the adolescent inmates’ constitutional rights. Ninety-five percent of the adolescent population on Rikers is Black or Latino. New York is uniquely harsh with its treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds, as it and North Carolina are the only states to set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 16. Over seventy-five percent of youth on Rikers Island are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. The prevalence of the unconstitutional conduct on Rikers Island is attributable, in large part, to the lack of accountability among Department of Corrections (DOC) staff members on Rikers Island, which results in a code of silence. To effectively deal with the pervasive pattern and practice of conduct on the part of DOC staff that violates adolescent inmates on Rikers Island’s constitutional rights, it is crucial to understand the differences between adolescents and adults and the power of the DOC staff union. This Note posits that in order to create meaningful reform and protect the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates, the cut-off age for criminal responsibility should be raised so that 16- and 17-year-olds fall under the jurisdiction of the Family Court and are not placed on Rikers Island. Additionally, the portion of the Administrative Code requiring all uniformed DOC ranks to be filled by promotion from within the uniformed force must be amended to obstruct the code of silence and prevent violence against inmates. Without such measures, the abuses against minority youth on Rikers Island will persist.


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Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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October 31, 2016