Westchester Children’s Association received a grant through the Westchester Community Foundation to teach two Teen Advocacy Leadership courses. We focused the advocacy lessons around one of our priority issues, Raise the Age (click here to learn more about RTA). This next post was written by our social work intern, Linnea Leger, in response to the growing concern about public safety when the age of criminal responsibility is raised to 18. Linnea was the lead educator and organizer of the Teen Advocacy Leadership courses.
Linnea Leger, WCA’s Social Work Intern
One of the biggest concerns that we hear from both elected officials and the community alike, in response to the proposed Raise the Age legislation is “What about the really bad crimes?” Of course, whenever the discussion about criminal justice reform comes up, there is a huge concern for public safety—and rightfully so. Communities are concerned that raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 will have a negative effect on community safety, when young people “get off with a slap on the wrist.” Harsh sentences are seen as a deterrent for criminal behaviors and opponents to the RTA legislation often assume that crime rates will rise once sixteen and seventeen year olds are no longer automatically tried as adults. From my own experience teaching young people from all over Westchester County, coming from all walks of life, many of them did not know that New York sets the age of criminal responsibility at 16—and they are not alone. If young people are not even aware of the fact that their sixteenth birthday brings the responsibility of adulthood in the eyes of the law, I ask you, how can you assume that they will be deterred by the harsher treatment that, unbeknownst to them, they are subject to? Raise the Age is not about being “tough on crime” as has been the political sentiment for decades, but about being smart on crime.
So, “What About the Really Bad Crimes?”
I want to bring your attention to the fact that approximately 86%[i] of all crimes committed by 16 and 17 year olds in New York State are misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Raise the Age is often labeled as a “city issue,” but, here in Westchester as well as in counties from all over the state, these statistics hold pretty steady. This 86% are subject to lesser sentences, meaning that they will be returning to their communities sooner. This is the population that the Raise the Age campaign is primarily concerned about, particularly when discussing public safety. While Governor Cuomo has begun to move 16 and 17 year olds out of state prisons to be housed in more age-appropriate facilities, the overwhelming majority of these young people are housed in county and city jails such as Riker’s Island, many of which do not have the space to house them separately from the adult populations. This is causing young people who have committed small offenses to be held in general population with adult career criminals who can socialize youth prisoners to become better criminals. If the young person is seen as a danger to the general prison population, or even more appallingly if they are identified as being in danger from the general prison population, they may be placed into solitary confinement. Solitary as a whole is widespread in its use in the United States, but internationally has been condemned as inhumane for all inmates. Adolescents, whose brains are not fully developed and who are more dependent on social interaction at their developmental level, are at an even greater risk for mental illness from time spent in solitary. This is part of the reason why we see young people who are placed in adult facilities commit suicide 36 times more frequently than youth placed in age appropriate housing.[ii]
Juvenile facilities are the best place to address the needs of young people involved in the criminal justice system. Because adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, they are more readily influenced by positive rehabilitative services that are provided in juvenile facilities. This brain plasticity is also what allows young people to be more negatively influenced when socialized with adult prisoners in the adult facilities, and adult corrections programs have fewer rehabilitative services than juvenile facilities do. What few programs an adult prison may have are likely to be too developmentally advanced for young people who end up there. Currently, young people are generally transferred out of juvenile facilities on their sixteenth birthdays (in some cases they are able to remain until they turn 21) and placed into an adult facility. By raising the age, we can ensure that all young people are able to remain in age— and developmentally— appropriate facilities until at least their eighteenth birthdays, giving them the best chance for rehabilitation and to become productive members of society.
We can see that the majority of the young people we are addressing with comprehensive Raise the Age legislation are not those people who commit the “really bad” crimes, but those crimes still must be addressed. Current New York law has identified these “really bad” crimes, such as rape, murder, and manslaughter as designated felonies. Young people under the age of 16 who are charged with one of these designated felonies are classified as “juvenile offenders” and are subject to have their cases transferred to adult criminal court where they can potentially face maximum adult sentences.[iii] If raise the age legislation succeeds, this will expand to include that small percentage of 16 and 17 year olds who commit these crimes. These cases are addressed differently from the traditional “juvenile delinquent” cases, such as non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, which are subject to shorter maximum sentences and are processed through family court. When the age is raised, 16 and 17-year olds who commit these types of offenses will be classified as juvenile offenders and will still potentially be sentenced to up to life in prison for murder just as they currently are. The difference is allowing these young people the opportunity to stay in age appropriate housing and treatment before they are transferred to adult facilities, and to protect these young people from the physical, sexual, and mental abuse that they are more likely to suffer from in adult facilities.
There is no perfect solution to addressing crime at any age, because in a perfect world no crime would be committed. The best case scenario for an individual who has been found guilty of a crime is to be able to learn from their mistake and give back to the community when they are released. Raising the age of criminal responsibility will still allow the perpetrators of some of the worst crimes to be held accountable in more severe ways, but it will also give them a better chance for reform. Nearly all prisoners will be released eventually. The question is, who do we want returning to our communities? Personally, I would prefer the ones who have been given the chance to change for the better.
WCA would like to thank the Westchester Community Foundation for their generous support of the Teen Advocacy Leadership program.