Op-Ed: Raise the Age

Written by Falon D. Rainer

New York is one of only two states that continue to prosecute youth over 15 as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime. Holding children liable as adults is likely to increase recidivism among teens, puts them in great risk of physical and mental harm, and it is a practice that goes against what we know about the developing teenage brain. Raising the age of adult liability to 18 would ensure that the State is protecting young people from the harmful effects of the adult criminal justice system while providing them the specific support they may need.

Under New York law, any adolescent over the age of 15 charged with committing any criminal act is treated as an adult from arrest through release and re-entry into their community. What does this look like? A 16-year-old who has been arrested has no right to notify their parent or guardian. They are subject to interrogation by law enforcement without parental presence or consent. Once housed within any state correctional facility, their age and likely inexperience with the system means they are extremely vulnerable and more likely to be the victim of physical or sexual assault. Further, the youth’s criminal record will not be sealed, thus causing them to deal with the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction for the rest of their lives. At 16, this may cause the youth’s family to be evicted from subsidized housing while deeming the youth ineligible for federal loans for higher education or certain professional licenses. All of this happens while the youth is rapidly developing their sense of self and identity.

Tens of thousands of children face this reality each year; the overwhelming majority for misdemeanor offenses. The injustice in black and brown communities is even more stark; we know that 80 percent of youth who are sentenced to incarceration are Black or Latino. Governor Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice, a group that includes members from law enforcement, advocacy organizations, and the court system, recently reported that New York ranks last in the nation on justice for 16- and 17-year-olds and they unanimously recommended raising the age to 18. But this legislation has been repeatedly and continues to be stalled in state budget negotiations. Science also tells us that what we are doing is wrong. We know that teens are often impulsive and lack the ability to fully grasp consequences. But because the teenage brain is still developing, adolescents are also more likely to respond well to intervention. Even the Supreme Court has accepted the argument that juveniles are receptive to change.

We must raise the age. Raising the age that someone can be criminally liable as an adult in New York would mean that 16- and 17- year-olds would be brought into family court rather than criminal court. In family court, the child’s parents would be immediately notified of their arrest and involved in every step of the court proceedings. If the judge finds that the youth has committed a delinquent act, she has the ability to tailor the remedy to the child’s needs. For example, she could confine the child to a detention center that provides mental health or drug counseling and anger management. Or she could determine that the child is need of increased structure within the child’s home and order participation in a mentoring program, a curfew check, mandatory tutoring, or structured extra-curricular activities. In the adult system, youths are often left without targeted services or interventions. It’s like we’re telling these young people that their single act of crime has given them one enduring identity: criminal.

Those opposed to the Raise the Age legislation in New York cite budget concerns. But states like Rhode Island who have recently enacted legislation to raise the age for adult prosecutions have reported saving millions of dollars in incarceration costs. Connecticut and Illinois have similar legislation and are reporting a drop in juvenile crime.

When we prosecute youth as adults, we’re missing the opportunity to connect them with services that will greatly reduce their chances of reoffending. This is a loss for the child, their family, and their entire community. This practice is a sign of the system’s desire to prioritize punishment over rehabilitation. We know that adolescents are less blameworthy and more rehabilitative than adults. We know that prosecuting youth in the adult system increases their likelihood of committing crimes or future violent acts. In order to protect our youth, support communities in need, and operate a system that is not unduly punitive, we must raise the age of adult criminal liability in New York.