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Editorial: New York should review prosecution of juveniles

Nassau County jail in this undated file photo.

Nassau County jail in this undated file photo. Credit: Newsday

When New York decided in 1962 that anyone older than 15 charged with a crime should be prosecuted as an adult, the law was supposed to be temporary. The State Legislature was to revisit the standard at some point and, with the benefit of research and experience, determine the most reasonable age of criminal responsibility.

Half a century later, New York and North Carolina are the only states that still view such youthful offenders as adults in criminal cases. It's time for that informed review. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds should be treated as the juveniles they are. The status quo hasn't worked well for teenagers herded into adult courts and prisons, and has undermined public safety.

We know now that teenagers in adult prisons are at increased risk of violent or sexual assault, solitary confinement, mental health problems and suicide. And young people who've done time in the adult criminal justice system have about 34 percent more rearrests for felony crimes than those retained in the juvenile justice system. That's no good for public safety. And yet in 2012, nearly 40,000 16- and 17-year-olds in the state had cases handled in adult criminal court. More than 2,700 of them were sentenced to adult jail or prison.

To prod the legislature to act, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this month created a Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice and gave it until Dec. 31 to develop a plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility -- the age at which youths are treated as adults -- and to handle the small number of young offenders who commit violent crimes.

The Supreme Court has ruled in separate cases that the death penalty and life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to people younger than 18, noting they have a diminished moral culpability and are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults. New York should follow the court's lead in recognizing that reality.