This spring, New York has an opportunity to modernize its criminal justice system so it helps children who get into trouble with the law, while also helping our communities become more diverse, prosperous and successful.
A goal for the State should be to help troubled youths lead more productive lives. This, in turn, will make our communities safer and more productive. The State Legislature can help the Adirondack Park build a brighter future for our communities, as it protects our clean water and wilderness, by raising the age as the Governor has proposed.
New York and North Carolina are the only states that put law-breakers younger than 18 into adult jails and prisons. New York also allows children as young as 7 to be prosecuted for crimes. Other states have rejected both practices because science shows that the human brain requires 25 years to fully develop.
Teenagers don’t have the intellectual and emotional tools they need to make rational, adult decisions. They lack the ability to assess danger or visualize potential consequences of their actions. Decision-making gets even worse when children are under stress.
Almost 35,000 children ages 16 and 17 were arrested and faced prosecution as adults in NY criminal court in 2013. Three-quarters of them were for misdemeanors. More than 650 children ages 13 to 15 years old were prosecuted in adult criminal courts in 2013.
Kids who go to prison have far more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system. Almost 80 percent of youth released from adult prisons reoffend, usually with more serious crimes. Children in adult prison are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff. They face the highest risk of sexual assault and are more than 30 times more likely to commit suicide than children held in youth detention.
Our civil laws recognize that children can’t be treated like adults. Children under 18 cannot vote. They cannot purchase alcohol, rent a car or be held accountable for contracts they sign. But if a child commits a crime, he or she is suddenly all grown up. As adults, we need to recognize this, and adjust what we do when a teenager breaks the law.
How we apply the law matters too. Children of every race make mistakes that could get them into trouble. Yet, minorities seem to pay more dearly and more frequently. More than 70 percent of children and youth who are arrested are black or Latino. And 80 percent of those who go to jail or juvenile detention are black or Latino. That far outstrips their proportion of the general population.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice has recommended a package of common sense reforms to the juvenile justice system:
- Raise the overall age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18, so it is consistent with other states;
- Raise the age of juvenile delinquency from age 7 to age 12 (except for homicide offenses, which should be raised to 10);
- Ensure no youth 16 or 17 years old are placed in adult facilities;
- Move the majority of cases for 16 and 17 year olds to Family Court and create a new Youth Part in the adult system for youth who allegedly committed more violent crimes;
- Expand services, including alternatives to detention and incarceration, to keep youth in their communities and not locked up; and,
- Increase the age for youthful offender status to 21 and broaden eligible crimes, to better address the collateral consequences of court involvement and help youth become more successful adults.
Communities across the Adirondack Park and the North Country would be better places to live if our police, prosecutors and judges were allowed to treat our children as children and not as adults.
New York State’s criminal justice system treats youngsters much too harshly. In the name of public safety, we arrest, convict and jail kids like they are mature enough to be responsible. But they are not. This unfair practice is doing more harm than good. In the end, both the child and the community suffer.
The Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council endorses these reforms because it wants New York law to treat all people fairly, regardless of age, race, faith, ethnicity, sexual orientation/identity, social class or any of the other characteristics that make each of us unique. As an affiliate organization, the Adirondack Council is happy to support the Raise the Age effort.