NY must raise age of criminal responsibility
March 30, 2015
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently introduced a new campaign aimed at reforming how the New York state justice system treats juvenile offenders. The campaign, aptly titled Raise the Age, aims to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18. New York City is currently one of only two states that automatically prosecutes teenagers ages 16 and up as adults. The current practice is unacceptable as it results in teenagers being placed in adult prisons, where they are more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of older inmates and prison staff than those over 18.
When it comes to the treatment of juvenile offenders, this is hardly the first time New York State prisons have generated controversy. Just last year the federal government released a report that detailed “a deep-seated culture of violence” perpetrated by prison staff against young inmates at Rikers Island. In addition, until January of this year inmates under the age of 21 were often subjected to “excessive and inappropriate” solitary confinement. While banning this practice is a positive change, it does not lessen the fact that putting youth in adult prisons can be incredibly harmful to their development.
In terms of cognitive development, 16- and 17-year-olds still have a way to go. It has been proven that brains are not fully formed until age 25. Many teenagers lack both the full ability to exercise impulse control and the foresight to completely comprehend the consequences of their actions. Furthermore, children at this stage are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, resulting in poor decision making. It is illogical and ineffective to punish someone who has not yet fully matured in the same way an older criminal is punished.
When serving in adult prisons, youth are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, two times as likely to be hurt by prison staff and eight times more likely to commit suicide than youth housed in juvenile facilities. These young offenders would be far better served by improved rehabilitation programs and more community-based services, especially considering 86 percent of all youth offenders in New York are accused and convicted of non-violent crimes. Such programs would also benefit the general public in terms of reducing future crime — youths prosecuted as adults have a 26 percent higher chance of recidivism than those processed as juveniles.
New York spends $100 million annually to house youth in detention and placement, money that would be better spent exploring alternate options. A child of 16 or 17 is still quite receptive to education and positive change, in a way that adults often are not. It is time for New York to Raise the Age, and to begin more fairly penalizing young teenagers.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 30 print edition. Email Annie Cohen at [email protected]