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 ...

New York should follow the examples of Illinois and Connecticut. Connecticut state legislators passed legislation to Raise the Age in 2007. The legislation was fully implemented by 2012, and by 2013 the state saw a $2 million reduction in the money spent on juvenile justice proceedings. It also saw a significant reduction in youth crime. In 2010, Illinois legislators decided that 17-year-olds accused of misdemeanors would be tried in juvenile, not adult courts. Illinois immediately saw a sharp decline in juvenile arrests and a 14 percent reduction in violent crime rates. The success of the 2010 legislation spurred Illinois legislators to expand juvenile treatment to young people accused of felonies in 2013. Since then, crime rates among young people in Illinois continue to drop.

Despite the encouraging evidence from other states that made reforms, New York State legislators once again failed to pass Raise the Age legislation when it came up for a vote in Albany in June. The state legislators who failed to pass the legislation also failed to recognize what new understandings in psycho-cognitive development have proved to be true: A young person’s brain is not fully formed until age 25. New York state legislators should take the new scientific findings, which suggest that testing limits and challenging authority is a natural aspect of the maturation process, into consideration when crafting legislation that deals with New York’s court-involved young people.

In a 2012 Ted Talk, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a cognitive neuro-scientist and author of the book, “The Learning Brain,” states that innovations in brain imaging technology over the past 10 years have “radically changed the ways we think about human brain development, revealing that it’s not all over in early childhood, and instead the brain continues to develop right throughout adolescence and into the 20s and 30s.” The discovery of this evolution shines new light on the way teens experience impulse control, manage and navigate emotions and consider consequences when they are taking risks or going about their daily lives. New scientific knowledge such as this finding comes as no surprise to teachers, case workers, counselors and others who work with young people. Professionals working in these fields are intimately acquainted with the human faces of the nearly 50,000 young people arrested and charged as adults in New York each year. The vast majority of those young people are charged with misdemeanors. Many youth development practitioners know that young people are merely experiencing growing pains and that charging them with crimes and sentencing them to do time will only make matters worse. Locking young people up does not help them to grow or become better people. What will it take for New York’s justice system to adopt this healthier, more informed, youth development-based approach?

The individuals our state’s justice system labels as offenders and criminals are young people who are, as we all were at some point, trying to find their place in a society that tends to send them mixed and contradictory messages. Are they adults? Are they children? The law treats them as if they are adults, yet simultaneously recognizes that they are too young to vote, purchase alcohol or cigarettes, serve in the military or even buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. No one can seem to make up their minds about them, not the media, not their peers, not their social environment, not even the educational and legal systems that are supposed to serve them.