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An editorial from this week’s New York Times, “When Children Become Criminals,” engages the question: at what age and under what circumstances should a minor be tried as an adult? This is in response to Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, recently announcing that he would be putting together a commission to develop a plan (recommended changes in laws and procedures) for raising the age for adult criminal prosecution by the end of 2014. Nearly 40,000 adolescents are sent through the New York criminal courts every year, most charged with nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, jumping the turnstile in subway, or possession of marijuana. As is well known, Black and Latino young people, especially young men, are highly overrepresented in New York’s court-involved youth population. One of the major takeaways from the article is the mention of the effects of putting children as young as 16-years-old through the adult court system:
Federally financed studies have shown that minors prosecuted as adults commit more violent crimes later on and are more likely to become career criminals than those sent though juvenile courts, where they receive counseling and family support. Beyond that, neurological science has shown that adolescents are less able to assess risks and make the kinds of mature decisions that would keep them out of trouble.
In 2007, Connecticut raised the age of criminal prosecution from 16 to 18, a law which took full effect in 2012. The state has also adopted new strategies for court-involved young people based on “rehabilitation, not lockups,” working to reduce arrests and save the state money. The Connecticut Legislature created a council of experts from law enforcement, mental health, and other fields to coordinate policy changes. The interdisciplinary collaboration is significant. Connecticut has ceased trying cases involving “nonthreatening adolescent misbehaviors,” like possession of tobacco. Most importantly, the state invested in counseling and intervention programs that “allow young people to make amends for minor misdeeds without going to court.”
I was surprised to learn that New York is one of only two states (North Carolina is the other one) in which 16-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults. The New York law came into effect with the state’s creation of the juvenile justice system under the Family Court Act in 1962. Unable to agree on an age at which offenders should be declared adults, lawmakers temporarily set it at 16, but “…as often happens with public policy, inertia set in and ‘temporary’ became permanent.” More than 250,000 youth under the age of 18 are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults each year. And in New York, almost 90% of boys released from juvenile incarceration are arrested again.
As mentioned above, there have been growing conversations about the repercussions of sending young people through the criminal court system as opposed to providing them with rehabilitation services that might help to address underlying emotional, physical, mental, sociocultural, and environmental factors influencing behaviors. When young people are labeled as criminals or delinquents and tried as adults, their education is disturbed, their psyche is affected, and their re-entry into school and life can be extremely difficult and damaging, especially as they are going through crucial developmental stages of pre-adolescence and adolescence.
In addition, critics argue that many detention centers wrongly focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation for young people. In a recent article on activists’ call for juvenile justice system reforms, AlJazeera America, highlights a new campaign working to change the procedures that the justice system uses with children and adolescents. It’s called Raise the Age:
Raise the Age New York is a public awareness campaign that includes national and local advocates, youth, parents, law enforcement and legal representative groups, faith leaders, and unions that have come together to increase public awareness of the need to implement a comprehensive approach to raise the age of criminal responsibility in NYS so that the legal process responds to all children as children and services and placement options better meet the rehabilitative needs of all children and youth.
I encourage you to check out the Raise the Age website and learn more about the reasons for the campaign and the holistic impact that raising the age could potentially have on the state’s juvenile justice system.
Reading the NYT article and learning about the Raise the Age campaign served as reminders about how the juvenile justice system needs a lot of work, but it is also highlights how imperative it is that we–society, educators, activists, parents, mentors, allies–work hard to challenge dominant narratives about “juvenile delinquents.” It is easy, especially in a sensational-news-saturated world to make snap judgements about young people incarcerated at a young age (who continue to lead lives of crime and punishment). Instead of just accepting the idea that young criminals look or act a certain way, lead certain lifestyles, or have the ability to make different choices but choose a life of crime instead, I encourage us all to take a step back and think about the programs and procedures that are set up to address and hopefully prevent such lifestyles and trajectories. Let’s think about productive and meaningful ways to support young men, in particular, labeled as failures and delinquents before they even grow facial hair.
How can we raise awareness? What kinds of conversations can we have? What new strategies and laws must be put in place in order for legitimate change to occur? Ask yourself these questions, pose them to others, and find more answers at Raise the Age.