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Push to ‘raise the age’ in New York

Stephon Johnson | 9/12/2013, 3:55 p.m.

A coalition of advocates, law enforcement and legal representative groups, faith leaders and unions are continuing the push for New York to raise the minimum age to try a person as an adult.

“Raise the Age NY” has continued their push to increase public awareness of the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York so the law counts all children as children and addresses the issues accordingly. Members of “Raise the Age NY” include organizations like the Center for Community Alternatives, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, the Correctional Association of New York, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund–New York, Youth Represent and 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Advocates claim that children react better to developmentally appropriate interventions available in the youth justice system and are more likely to re-offend (and have a higher risk of violent behavior) when placed in the adult system. Outside of North Carolina, New York is the only state that currently prosecutes 16 and 17 years olds as adults. Depending on the nature of the crime, children as young 13 years old are automatically prosecuted as adults as well.

According to advocates, all of the estimated 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in New York annually, whether for a felony or misdemeanor, are treated as adults, and their cases are adjudicated in adult criminal courts. A statistical analysis of children under the age of 18 shows that misdemeanors account for over 75 percent of the arrests, while Black and Latino children make up over 70 percent of those arrested and 80 percent of those who are incarcerated.

In a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, advocates credit him with improving the state of the justice system in New York, but remind him that more work needs to be done. “Since taking office, you have made great strides in reforming our juvenile justice system,” reads the letter. “By closing underutilized facilities, increasing funding for alternatives to detention, placement and incarceration and bringing New York City youth closer to home, you have improved the lives of countless children, helped to strengthen communities and improved public safety. Raising the age of criminal responsibility—so that all children are treated like children regardless of the crime—is the next logical step along this continuum.”

In the letter, the advocates also called for a meeting with the governor to further discuss criminal justice reform. But their activism doesn’t end with Cuomo. There’s an online petition at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York’s website in favor of raising the minimum age for a child to be tried as an adult.

According to research data obtained by advocates, trying young people as adults is bad for public safety and increases chances of recidivism once they leave the system. Youths incarcerated in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and 34 percent more likely to reoffend upon release, stats show. Brain research also shows us that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until age 25, so young people are more likely to respond to rehabilitative treatment. According to advocates, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are better receptive to change than adults, and they would respond well to interventions.

In the advocates’ letter, they warned Cuomo against not tackling the problem head-on as soon as possible.

“Our response to their actions must be one that is developmentally appropriate and helps to set them on a track that produces positive outcomes for children and protects the safety and well-being of the communities they return to,” the letter read. “Anything less fails them and fails the community.”