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Jailing juveniles isn't justice

A jail cell.

A jail cell. Photo Credit: iStock

Teenagers do dumb things -- sometimes really dumb things that impact the lives of others and threaten public safety in a way that warrants punishment. The punishment, as the saying goes, should fit the crime, but far too many young New Yorkers are being swept into an adult criminal justice system where the penalties for minor offenses include traumatic assaults, lifetime barriers to education and employment and a probable return to confinement.

Our state has some of the nation's most progressive criminal justice policies, yet only New York and North Carolina prosecute all youth over the age of 15 as adults. Practically, that means that nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year old New Yorkers are arrested annually -- mostly for misdemeanors -- and handled like 40-year-old career felons. On any given day, there are about 700 16- and 17-year-olds in local jails across the state and about 100 more in state prisons. More than 80 percent are black and Latino.

According to the Children's Defense Fund and other juvenile justice reform advocates, kids placed in an adult jail or prison rather than a juvenile facility are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon and 36 times more likely to commit suicide. Several studies, including one published by a community task force assembled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have found that young people handled as adults have about 34 percent more rearrests for felony crimes than those retained in the youth justice system and about 80 percent of youth released from adult prisons reoffend, probably in part because they continue the behaviors that helped them survive in a threatening and dangerous environment.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, acting on the recommendations of New York's Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, proposes to change all that by raising the age to qualify as an adult criminal from 16 to 18, building separate facilities for kids and most important, boosting community-based alternatives to incarceration, so that we can intervene earlier and prevent kids from becoming career criminals. The state's budget, approved by the legislature earlier this year, earmarks $135 million in new funding to support the long-awaited transformation of New York's juvenile justice system.

But as a tumultuous legislative session enters its final days, some lawmakers are balking. No one wants to appear "soft on crime" and after all, doesn't a toddler even understand that hurting another person or taking someone else's stuff is wrong? And aren't crimes like rape and murder more than youthful indiscretions?

They are, which is why such offenses should be treated differently. But in re-designing a cost-effective and productive response to lower-level juvenile offenses, we need to consider the last decade's worth of incontrovertible evidence that suggests that the human brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. Adolescents might understand the difference between right and wrong but they are often impulsive, lack the cognitive ability to consider long-term consequences of their actions and have a difficult time regulating their emotions. The flip side of that biological immaturity, though, is that the character, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are highly receptive to change; they often respond well to interventions, can learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior.

That's why juvenile justice reforms in New York are long overdue. Raise the age to 18. Make incarceration a last resort, reserved only for those who have committed the most serious offenses and pose a significant risk to public safety. In those instances, confinement should be safe, rehabilitative and future-focused. Cases that can be heard in Family Court should be and a dedicated "youth part" should be added to adult criminal courts to hear cases that involve alleged violent crimes. Most would agree that there's no reason for kids charged with petit larceny or other low-level nonviolent offenses to be saddled with a permanent record that forever impacts their ability to get a job or go to school; their records should be sealed. Most important, reducing crime and its associated costs is best achieved by increasing access to age-appropriate substance abuse, mental health and community services.

The evidence is clear: prosecuting and placing adolescents in the adult criminal justice system doesn't work for them, it doesn't work for public safety and it costs taxpayers millions of dollars in law enforcement expenses, new jail construction and lifetime social service costs. Raising the age and addressing juvenile offenses in a way that better balances youth development, personal accountability, and public safety isn't about getting softer on crime, it's about getting smarter.

Jeffrey L. Reynolds is the president and chief executive of Family and Children's Association in Mineola, operates several juvenile justice programs and provides alternatives to incarceration.

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