Raise the age

Opinion-Editorial

By THE REV. JACQUES DEGRAFF | 5/8/2014, 1:34 p.m.

Think about what your life was like when you were a teenager. For many of us, those memories are some of the best of our lives, reminding us of a time of innocence, when we felt like adults but knew we weren’t.

In keeping with that attitude, many of us got into trouble and did things we’d never imagine doing as an adult—taking risks or even running afoul of the law. For some New Yorkers, particularly those who grow up in privileged circumstances or low-crime areas, those teenage misjudgments led to little more than a slap on the wrist or in-school detention. But for a troublingly large number of our young people, youthful mistakes lead to jail time—drastically altering their productive lives before they’ve even begun.

Why? Because New York is one of only two states in the union—along with North Carolina—in which all 16- and 17-year-old offenders are prosecuted as adults. It’s a backward policy, and it must change.

Raise the Age NY is a public awareness campaign bringing together a broad range of advocacy groups and concerned New Yorkers who care about the way our criminal justice system works. The coalition includes young people, parents, clergy, law enforcement officials and more. What brings us together is an understanding of how urgent it is to give all youth a better shot at making something of themselves, and to take a better approach to public safety, reducing crime and keeping our communities safer.

Why are we so motivated to make a change? Let’s consider the facts. First and foremost, science confirms what we know from our lived experience, which is that adolescents are in fact children. The human brain isn’t fully developed until we’re 25; before that age, our cognitive skills are still developing, and we’re more prone to impulsive behavior and can’t adequately focus on the consequences of that behavior. And because young people are still forming their identities and personalities, they respond well to interventions and learn from mistakes—and deserve the chance to try.

What’s more, children who face imprisonment in adult facilities are much more likely to suffer physical and emotional abuse. Studies have found that young people prosecuted and punished as adults are far more likely to end up back in trouble.

One study found that individuals under 18 who are processed through the adult system are arrested for subsequent felonies 34 percent more often than their peers in the juvenile justice system. And even those who stay out of trouble report understandable difficulty in getting good jobs because of felony records that potential employers can find off-putting—even though the applicant may have been just 16 at the time of the incident. Making matters worse, we know that this policy affects Black and Latino youth in massive disproportion.

What we’re asking for is a comprehensive approach to raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York. The state should guarantee that all children are properly treated as children in the eyes of the justice system and that adequate resources are made available for the kind of rehabilitative services we know work.

The encouraging news is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees that reform is critical. He recently announced the formation of the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice to identify the best way to change New York’s policy and improve public safety in our cities and towns.

It’s important that the commission move with urgency; we have the opportunity to be a national leader in doing the right thing for our young people, and we must not let it slip away.

“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated,” Cuomo said. He’s absolutely right. Now it’s time to change them.

The Rev. Jacques DeGraff is the first vice president of One Hundred Black Men, New York.