February 1, 2016
For Angelo Pinto (’08), it comes down to science: Teen brains are not fully developed, meaning teens are incapable of fully assessing risk, and their character and sense of self are still under construction as well.
Angelo Pinto (’08):Fighting for Incarcerated Youth
“To put a teen into a hyper-violent environment, like an adult prison, means shaping the character of that person at a time before they are fully formed,” he says. Putting teens in adult environments results in dangerous consequences for both individuals and public safety, he notes.
Determined to make changes, Pinto joined the Raise the Age Campaign at the Correctional Association of New York in 2012 as its campaign manager. The association strives to increase the age of criminal responsibility in New York State from 16 to 18, and to ensure that teens are not housed in adult jails or prisons.
“I always knew I wanted to do public interest lawyering. I knew I wanted to transform society,” says the New York native.
Pinto’s career choice expands on his passion to create change, especially in a correctional system he views as dysfunctional. Prior to joining the Correctional Association, he designed interventions for formerly incarcerated men in central Brooklyn for the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and also worked at Rikers Island teaching a legal research course to incarcerated adolescents and youth.
Pinto’s interest in effecting change in the correctional systems started, he suspects, after he read certain books—The Autobiography of Malcolm X among them. “There was something there I related to and, over the years, it was nurtured into a desire to bring about social justice,” he says.
He also has a personal connection to the issue of youth in New York State’s criminal and juvenile justice system. About 17 years ago, when his older brother was 16, he was tried as an adult. That history coupled with his current work brought home for Pinto the unfairness of sending a teenager to an adult facility.
New York is one of only two states that prosecute youth as adults when they turn 16 (North Carolina is the other). Pinto knows that working for legislative change gives him the opportunity to impact large numbers of young people, and transform the system.
“One of the things at CUNY Law that prepared me for this kind of work was that professors, as well as fellow students, were the kind of people who cared about doing work that would impact society,” he says.
In the three years that Pinto has led the Raise the Age Campaign—essentially, since its inception—the goal to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York has moved almost within reach. His aptitude for community organizing, creating coalitions of supporters throughout the state and meeting with key personnel in the state assembly and governor’s offices, has aided the campaign’s successes.
In January 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed raising the age in his State of the State speech. He later created the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice to study the proposed age change. In 2015, the commission issued its report, prompting a $135 million line item in the governor’s budget, the majority of which was slated for upgrading facilities to accommodate separate facilities for teens and adults. Although the change did not make it into legislation in 2015, Pinto believes it remains a legislative priority for the governor.
Pinto has expanded his advocacy for youth justice beyond New York. Last year, he testified at the United Nations in Geneva, and this past October he visited the White House as part of National Youth Justice Awareness Month.
Pinto is quick to acknowledge that raising the age when adolescents enter the adult correctional system is just one piece of what is needed to improve youth justice nationwide. He hopes that his experiences, and the success he has gained thus far at the local and state levels, may one day allow him to change federal laws to help even more young people in youth detention centers, jails, and prisons.