New York Times [Editorial]: A Court Just for Juveniles in N.Y.

EDITORIAL | YOUNG OFFENDERS

A Court Just for Juveniles in NY

September 16, 2013

Teenagers prosecuted in adult courts or who do time in adult jails fare worse in life and can go on to commit more violent crimes than those who are handled by the juvenile justice system. Neuroscience research has found that these young offenders don’t weigh risks the way adults do, making them prone to rash judgments that can land them in trouble with the law.

These facts argue for steering adolescents into the juvenile justice system, where they can receive rehabilitative services and be spared adult criminal convictions that banish them to society’s margins and make it virtually impossible for them to find jobs.

This logic has prevailed throughout the country. But it has, so far, been ignored in New York State, one of only two states — the other is North Carolina — that sets the age of adult criminal responsibility at 16. (Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia consider 18 as the age for adult prosecution, and 11 states set it at 17.) Nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds in New York end up in the criminal courts each year, a vast majority charged with nonviolent crimes like fare beating, marijuana possession or shoplifting.

That may be changing thanks to efforts by groups like Raise the Age NY, a coalition of justice advocacy groups that argues for raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Among those who have rallied to this cause is New York State’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, and the Nassau County district attorney, Kathleen Rice.

Judge Lippman has submitted a bill to the Legislature that calls for the formation of a special court for 16- or 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent crimes. These youth-division courts would have judges specially trained in issues of adolescent development and therapeutic approaches to juvenile crime. If the case is resolved in the youth division, no criminal charges would be filed against the child, fingerprints would be destroyed and all records would be sealed. The goal is to treat children as children instead destroying their lives even before they’ve begun.

New York’s decision, made in 1962, to define juveniles as those under 16 was meant to be temporary. But inertia quickly set in, causing the erroneous decision to stand for 50 years, even as “tough-on-crime” states began to see that teenagers needed special protection. It is well past time for New York to adopt the same sensible policy.

>>>To view the full editorial on the NY Times website, click here.