Youth Don’t Belong in the System

Laws will push teenagers into adult prisons





By Marvin Bing, Jr. and William Lipton

What if somebody told you he’d designed a machine that could transform children into criminals? If you think that’s a terrible invention, then you’re a lot saner than New York State’s justice system, which often does exactly that.

Shockingly, New York is one of only two states (the other is North Carolina) that prosecutes children as young as 16 as adults, virtually assuring that these kids will go on to commit serious crimes once they emerge from the harsh world of adult prisons. This barbaric state of affairs flies in the face of scientific research on human brain development and harms our kids and our communities. It’s time for New York to join the civilized world, treat kids like kids, and raise the age of criminal responsibility.

Research confirms that adolescents are not adults. In fact, the human brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. As adolescents’ brains develop, their behavior is often impulsive and they lack the ability to focus on the likely consequences. During this developmental stage, adolescents’ character, personality traits and behavior are all highly receptive to change. As a result, adolescents respond well to interventions, can learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior.

Unfortunately, every year nearly 50,000 children at the ages of 16 and 17 are arrested in New York state and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court. The vast majority of these arrests are for minor crimes — over 75 percent are misdemeanors. Even worse, more than 600 children from 13 to 15 are also prosecuted in adult criminal courts.

Once placed in the adult justice system, these troubled kids are on a dangerous track that will transform many of them into repeat criminals. Young people in the adult criminal justice system have about 34 percent more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system. The recidivism rate for youth emerging from adult prisons is around 80 percent and many of these individuals end up committing more serious crimes.

It should come as no surprise that troubled children who might be reached by a more effective approach to justice end up scarred by their time in adult prisons and emerge from this damaging experience even more likely to commit crimes. Youth in adult prisons are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and nearly 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than children placed in youth facilities. They also face the highest risk of sexual assault.

Critically, youth in adult prisons are often placed in solitary confinement. The isolation they face in adult facilities is destructive to their mental health at a vital stage of development and can cause lifelong psychological harm.

This can’t go on. Instead of taking troubled but reachable children and turning them into criminals before sending them back into our communities, New York must raise the age of criminal responsibility and provide young offenders with an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and become healthy, law-abiding adults.

Youth who need to be incarcerated will still be incarcerated — but in an age-appropriate setting.

That’s why our organizations have joined dozens of others throughout the state in calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to end this badge of shame. New York is not North Carolina.

Marvin Bing Jr. is campaign manager for Children’s Defense Fund-New York’s Raise the Age campaign and William Lipton is state director of the Working Families Party.

Originally published in the Times Union

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