Raise the Age to Get Appropriate Justice for All Under 18
This month, New York passed among the nation’s strongest measures to “raise the age,” making it the 49th state to refrain from trying all 16-year-old criminal defendants as adults, and the 44th state to refrain from trying all 17-year-olds as adults, once the rollout is complete in 2020.
The accomplishment is significant, positively impacting thousands of children each year and bolstering national, bipartisan momentum for getting more youth under 18 out of adult criminal justice systems.
As in other states, change is needed. New York, like many states, maintains a distinction between violent and non-violent crimes, allowing some young people to be tried and jailed as adults if they are alleged to have committed a violent offense.
New York’s raise-the-age law will still leave a small percentage of the youth charged with violent crimes in the adult court, albeit in a Youth Part presided over by a Family Court Judge. Many of them will still end up with adult sentencing, in adult jails, and adult records with collateral consequences that might set them back for life.
There is no justification to abandon children, no matter what they are charged with, to the dangerous adult system.
The line New York’s Legislature has drawn between violent and non-violent crimes is not based on research and does not result in good policy. There is no evidence that children involved in violent offenses are any less open to rehabilitation and positive change than children charged with lower- level offenses.
Moreover: steering those young people to the adult system will not reduce juvenile crime, while doing irreparable harm to the children involved.
In that, New York goes down a road to disappointment traveled by other states that have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility but still allow or insist on prosecuting young people in adult court if their charges involve violent felonies, including Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
All but Massachusetts have mechanisms for transferring children under 18 to the adult court on the order of a judge.
Given the discretion, judges use it, over and over again. In 2015, Connecticut judges transferred 180 youth, or about 2% of total defendants, to adult court for prosecution.
And all except for New Hampshire automatically send children to the adult system for some crimes.
Louisiana, which passed a raise-the-age bill last year, empowers prosecutors to charge youth in the adult court without judicial review.
New York, thankfully, has none of these transfer mechanisms, making its successful raise-the-age effort all the more meaningful.
Under New York’s new law, all misdemeanor cases against 16- and 17-year-olds — which make up 70% of all cases — will begin and remain in Family Court. Meanwhile, all felony cases begin in the adult court youth part, but the majority will be transferred to Family Court within 30 days, with no opportunity to be transferred back.
There is no doubt that New York’s raise-the-age reform is a great step forward for youth justice. But, as in other states, there is still more work to be done. The new law will still allow some 16- and 17-year-olds to have their cases heard in the adult court.
That means that youth can still be tried as adults, by some mechanism, for some crimes, in every state in the country.
As long as children involved in violent offenses are seen as less deserving of educational and rehabilitative programs, and as long as policy-makers and the public are willing to give up on some children before their 18th birthday, we will continue to see children inappropriately and counter-productively removed to the adult criminal justice system.
Mistrett is CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under age 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
This editorial appeared on April 28 in the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: www.nydailynews.com/opinion/raise-age-justice-18-article-1.3109361.