The need for New York to ‘Raise the Age’

Brian Lewis | 8/11/2016, 4:11 p.m.
Here’s how it goes: You’re riding the train on the way home from school with a group of friends. A ...

Here’s how it goes: You’re riding the train on the way home from school with a group of friends. A commotion is heard in the middle of the train car. A scuffle breaks out. You don’t throw a single punch, but because you’re with the people who did, you’re arrested. You’re just a teen, a student, but you’re charged as an adult. The prosecutor has decided the scuffle, which took place during the rush-hour commute, was a serious threat to public safety.

They want to teach you a lesson. You’re charged with gang assault, which is a violent felony. You’re held on Rikers Island, a jail for adults but which has a massive complex where they house teens such as yourself. You’ve never been to jail. You’re scared. You miss home, you are isolated from your friends and you are unable to attend your school. Although you’re not in a gang, you’re surrounded by Bloods, Crips and other gangs that you encounter for the first time. You contemplate getting “blessed in,” not because it’s cool and alluring, but for the safety, the protection. You’re stuck at Rikers until your next court date. You’re confined there until your unemployed mother can scrape together thousands of dollars in bail for your temporary release. You want this ordeal to be over, so along with your public defender, you work out a deal that means you plead guilty to avoid doing additional time. That is how it goes, not only for you but also for tens of thousands of young people in very similar circumstances in New York City and across the state. That is how it goes when you’re 16 and Black and living in New York City.

You’re a victim of circumstance. If your family lived in Chicago, Ill., or Bridgeport, Conn., you would not have been charged as an adult. You would have come through the juvenile courts. However, New York, a state commonly perceived as progressive, has fallen far behind the rest of the country on this issue. When juvenile courts were first created in this state at the turn of the 20th century, the age of criminal responsibility was set at 16, as it was in many other jurisdictions. However, as other states became enlightened to the fact that adolescence does not terminate at 16 and that juvenile court treatment for legal involvement should extend up until the age of 18, New York did not follow suit. Currently, New York and North Carolina (a state that does not have as progressive a reputation) are the only two states that still prosecute 16-year-olds in adult courts. This similarity should be a point of ill repute for all New Yorkers. The Raise the Age movement recognizes that New York’s approach to youth prosecution is antiquated and not beneficial to children or public safety. Raise the Age is the term for the political movement that seeks to increase the age of criminal responsibility in New York and elsewhere to at least 18, so that young people can receive treatment and support rather than incarceration and punishment.