By Marian Wright Edelman and Melanie Hartzog
NNPA Guest Columnists
Under New York’s juvenile justice system a child as young as 7 can be arrested for a crime, and a 16-year-old is automatically charged as an adult.
These laws are shockingly behind the times — bad for children and bad for public safety. New York is one of only four states to create a juvenile jurisdiction for little children who are barely old enough to shed their baby teeth and still believe in the tooth fairy. And they are expected to have the cognitive development necessary to participate in and understand a trial?
New York is one of only two states to ignore the latest neurological research underscoring the fact that 16- and 17-year-olds are still children developmentally. Their brains will not be fully formed until age 25, and they lack the ability to control impulsive behavior by focusing on its consequences.
This key developmental period is an important opportunity for rehabilitation. Research shows adolescents are highly receptive to change in a way that adults are not. They respond very well to proven interventions, and with them, can learn to make more responsible choices.
Ignoring evidence-based interventions proven to reduce recidivism and continuing to ship teens off to crime school (adult prison) are mistakes we can’t afford to keep making. In adult prisons, youths are more likely to suffer physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and to be molded by other prisoners, often hardened career criminals. Studies have found that youths in the adult criminal justice system are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and are re-arrested 34 percent more often for felony crimes than their peers in the juvenile justice system.
This sobering fact, that automatically charging 16- and 17-year olds as adults makes them more likely to commit violent crimes, is proof that this policy is athreat to public safety. The evidence shows children should be treated as children, particularly since these teen arrests are overwhelmingly for nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, turnstile jumping, or drug possession. The racial disparities in policing youths of color (over 70 percent of the children arrested and 80 percent of the children sent to prison statewide are Black and Latino) compound the harm these unfair laws are inflicting on our children and communities.
Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo included recommendations from his Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice in his 2015-16 Executive Budget. His proposal raises the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction from age 7 to 12 (age 10 in rare cases of homicide). It also raises the overall age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18, and broadens the list of eligible circumstances in which young offender status can be assigned to age 21. Importantly, this means that 16- and 17-year-olds would never again be housed with adult criminals. Instead, the justice system would focus on proven services and interventions that the most current research has demonstrated result in better outcomes for youths, reduce recidivism, and keep communities safer from violent crime.
CDF’s work to raise the age in New York builds on our early work to keep children out of adult jails — recognizing inhumane conditions and great harms to children. In the foreword to our 1976 report Children in Adult Jails, Judge Justine Wise Polier, New York State’s first woman judge, who presided in New York City’s Family Court for 38 years, and at the time was director of CDF’s Juvenile Justice Division, chided states that continued to prosecute and jail children in the adult criminal justice system: “It has been over three-quarters of a century since states began to legislate that children should be treated as children.”
Today New York and North Carolina are the only two states left that automatically treat children as adult criminals, but how pleased Judge Polier would be that Governor Cuomo has put forward a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to juvenile justice reform that would change that. Now is the time for the New York state legislature to join him by adopting this important, long overdue change. Then North Carolina, as the last outlier, should join the rest of the states in seeking justice for children.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund. Melanie Hartzog is executive director of CDF-New York.