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.
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.
All adolescents test limits, but when those limits are the boundaries of law enforcement and authority, the consequences can be extremely costly. Many of us remember the feelings of rebelliousness that accompanied our teenager years, and the thrills associated with challenging norms and pushing limits. For a fortunate few, teenage years offer opportunities to excise demons, experience reckless abandon and ultimately mature towards a better, more enhanced version of themselves. However, for multitudes of young people in our state, the law’s rigid, unforgiving approach leaves them with traumatizing experiences. They are sentenced to do time in adult jails. Even if they’re not sentenced to jail or prison, they lose precious time that should be spent in school, going back and forth to court appearances. In many instances, they are left with criminal records that follow them well into adulthood.
Despite numerous studies that show Black and Latino young people engage in lawless behavior, such as marijuana use and possession, at almost the same rates as their white counterparts, Blacks and Latinos significantly over-index in terms of who gets arrested and incarcerated. Data from the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services reveal that 80 percent of young people incarcerated are Black and Latino. Academics such as Michelle Alexander have pointed out that the sizable police presence in Black and Latino communities and aggressive tactics such as stop and frisk can lead to more court involvement among these groups and the subsequent impression that they are less law abiding. This perception can have disastrous and permanent consequences for youth of color, setting up a vicious circle of policing, prosecution, court-involvement and incarceration for entire communities. Meanwhile, many white young people avoid arrest all together, and even if they arrested, have charges against them dismissed or dropped, or they are allowed to receive an alternative to incarceration at sentencing. This disparity reveals that despite claims of a colorblind system that treats every individual fairly and objectively under the law, if you are young and Black, you come into the system already with two strikes against you.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The 16-year-old Black young man riding the subway could receive assistance and help from the Family Court system, rather than be prosecuted and treated like a criminal in adult courts. He could be connected to programs that foster his creativity, assist him with the pursuit of educational and career goals and expand his social and professional network to be more inclusive, positive, healthy and inspiring. However, the majority of the general public is completely oblivious to the unjust treatment young people receive under the current system. Obliviousness helps to sustain the status quo. For change to happen, New Yorkers must wake up to the issue of Raise of the Age. The voting public must put pressure on local lawmakers to stop putting teens in jail and instead provide them with the counseling, support and services they desperately need. Only then will the story turn out differently. Only then can we all make it home safely. Only then can we all pursue the opportunities it is our right to pursue.
Brian Lewis is a senior teacher at exalt, an organization that serves young people involved in the criminal justice system, and a adjunct professor at The New School.