Op-Ed: Raising the Age Saves Young Lives

For years New York has borne the unfortunate and unlikely distinction of being one of only two states in the U.S. that prosecutes 16- and 17-year olds as adults. Action by Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature has finally ended this barbaric practice that ruins young lives and threatens public safety.

When a 16- or 17-year old is arrested and treated as an adult, there is no requirement to notify parents. The practice assumes that a child of this age knows her or his legal rights and has the knowledge and understanding to make an informed decision to waive Miranda rights. They have few opportunities for diversion programs, are detained with hardened adult criminals, often subjected to abuse and exposed to adult criminal behaviors. When children are arraigned in adult courts they may wait months or years for a jury trial, even if they have not actually committed a crime. If sentenced as adults, they have little chance of receiving appropriate services and will have a criminal record for the remainder of their lives, even if their offense was minor. Medical research has shown that the adolescent brain is not fully developed, making teens more likely to act impulsively and less likely to understand the consequences than adults. Studies have shown that youths processed as adults are far more likely to be re-arrested than those processed in appropriate juvenile systems.

New York’s new law will allow 16- and 17-year olds to be tried in family court for criminal offenses. Medical and neural science and experiential evidence clearly show that this is the right thing to do if we really care about young people, their safe passage to adulthood and the wellbeing of our communities. Family courts can provide appropriate behavioral health services and placement in facilities equipped to address youth needs such as education, vocational training and social skills. Raising the age of criminal responsibility gives youths a chance for rehabilitation, a chance to have a successful future and become productive members of their communities. Raising the age saves young lives.

But we cannot stop here. In New York City, where our public transit fare is increasingly unaffordable, we should decriminalize turnstile jumping or “theft of services” for all teenagers and out of school youth. Let’s also raise the lower age of juvenile delinquency from age seven to age 12 except for homicide offenses. The stigma of criminality for a seven year old can leave lifelong scars.

I have submitted legislation to the City Council for these policy changes. Let’s continue to protect our youth and our future.

Editor’s Note: Councilman Fernando Cabrera serves the 14th City Council District covering Kingsbridge, Kingsbridge Heights, Fordham, University Heights, Morris Heights, and Tremont.

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Op-Ed: Raising the Age Saves Young Lives