Juvenile justice system failing youth and communities

Officers with guns drawn search for an armed Durand Eastman suspect back in July. This case is one reason behind a push for reform to bring the juvenile justice system up to speed with crimes being committed by kids and teens today. (WHAM photo)

(WHAM) - It is designed to help young men and women in trouble with the law, but many close to the juvenile justice system say it is failing them and putting the lives of others in the community in danger.

There is a push for reform to bring the juvenile justice system up to speed with crimes being committed by kids and teens today. Many say a local, high profile case is a prime example as to why change is needed.

The scene at Durand Eastman Park in June was officers with guns drawn, choppers circling overhead and SWAT vehicles searching day and night for nearly a week, for an armed, 15-year-old suspect.

Neighbors in the area say the teen, who we cannot identify due to his age, terrorized the community and could have killed someone.

One beach goer recalled being told to evacuate while hearing low-flying choppers overhead.

"Security came, said active shooter in the area, everybody out!," they said.

Beth Ford's home backs up to the park. She said golfers on the course were told to get off and get out as fast as possible.

"They came out shooting a gun, up in the air, like 'pow, pow, pow,' before the cops even pulled up behind them," Ford said.

Paul Irving is the juvenile prosecutor assigned to the case. He said today's juvenile justice system in many ways is broken. Family court, Irving said, is meant to heal children and teens, not punish them. However, he said it is not up to speed with crimes being committed today.

"The system we have is working great for if you are stealing candy bars or you are not going to school," Irving told 13WHAM News. "We are seeing kids very, very violent now and the system is not designed to handle them."

The teen is accused of stealing a car and firing shots at police before leading them on a high speed chase through a packed Durand Eastman Park. He was released with an ankle monitoring bracelet. The decision was not one with which Irving was on board.

"It would have been my goal from the day he came in to keep him in custody," Irving said.

Weeks later, he was accused of cutting off that anklet and brutally beating 83-year-old Chili man, Bob Austin, with a bat in Austin's garage.

"They just started swinging at me," Bob Austin recalled. "I think if they would have knocked me out, I think they would have beaten my head to a pulp."

Austin suffered broken bones and bruises that covered his body and shoulder.

Irving said releasing the suspect compromised the lives of others. He said that is the most dangerous and potentially deadly flaw in the system.

"There are kids who scare me who are 14 or 15 years old," Irving said. "For the community's safety, they should at least be put away somewhere while we work with them. On a scale of one to 10 - how serious are those crimes for somebody that age? Eleven! That's pretty serious. Driving a stolen car through a golf course full of people, not caring if you hurt someone or not, having a gun."

Gates Police Chief, Jim VanBrederode oversees his officers taking juveniles into custody and agrees that the system is in need of reform.

"There is absolutely no logic in any of this," VanBrederode said. "I'm not talking about punishing them and putting them in jail. I'm talking about putting them somewhere where they have a structured environment and they're not living on the streets."

VanBrederode said family court failed Bob Austin and the community.

"So what happened with the ankle bracelet, the stolen car in Greece and the shots fired - we put them back in that same environment and then we had that terrible robbery in the town of Chili," VanBrederode said. "He cuts his ankle bracelet off. That's just mind boggling why would not we have that person secured somewhere."

Irving and VanBrederode say red tape in Albany is inhibiting change in the juvenile justice system and is a constant source of frustration in their lines of work.

Both said they are committed to getting those who work with juveniles in the room when laws are drafted to enact change in Albany. It is change they say will uplift young men and women and in turn, uplift our communities.

"There is a chance here, at this age to get to them before they become a statistic or get that angry or that bitter that they take a gun and shoot somebody or doing something that spends the rest of their life in jail," Irving said.

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