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Stop punishing teens as adults

Countless young people fall into the adult criminal

Countless young people fall into the adult criminal justice system, a system that makes it increasingly difficult for them to get their lives back on track. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / AlexRaths

With a week left in budget negotiations, New York could finally join the 48 other states that have raised the age at which youths are charged as adults.

Only one other state, North Carolina, automatically treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they commit a crime — no matter how minor.

For the third year in a row, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo included the “raise the age” legislation in his executive budget, released in January. Since then, we’ve seen a surge of support for this smart-on-crime bill — the State Assembly passed legislation last month and members of the State Senate leadership have expressed support.

That’s good because the current system is harmful to our youth and a danger to the public safety of our communities.

Countless young people fall into the adult criminal justice system, a system that makes it increasingly difficult for them to get their lives back on track.

Take the case of Kalief Browder, the young man who was just 16 years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Being unable to post bail, Browder was held at Rikers Island for three years, mostly in solitary confinement. Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide as a result of being unable to cope with the mental and physical abuse he endured while at Rikers Island. This case is just one of the many cases of young people suffering irreparable damage at the hands of the adult criminal justice system.

Research has shown the adult criminal justice system makes it more likely that these youths will commit more crime. Charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults limits their access to educational and rehabilitative services that could help them turn their lives around. They are also more likely to face violence, abuse and sexual assault by older inmates and prison guards. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Report found that incarcerated youth are the group most at risk for sexual abuse in prison.

Young people of color — especially young men of color — are particularly at risk, as they are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate.

It is time New York State got smart on crime. Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 would help young people receive age-appropriate treatment and services, making our communities safer.

About 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds a year face possible prosecution as adults in criminal court, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. While most youths who enter the criminal justice system are convicted of nonviolent crimes, studies show that 80 percent released from adult prisons go on to break the law again, and when they do, they often commit more serious crimes.

Criminal justice experts and behavioral psychologists agree that there is a need for age-appropriate reforms for youth offenders at all crime levels. These youngsters are still developing cognitively and often act on impulse. With proper supervision and services, such as counseling and educational and vocational services, we can ensure that they will be able to lead productive lives outside of prison.

New York can no longer remain behind the curve on this issue; 48 states have already raised the age and some are considering raising it higher. It’s time for the State Legislature and the governor to prioritize this policy, so that we can improve public safety and the lives of thousands of young New Yorkers who deserve second chances.

The Rev. Dyanne Pina is executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.