This marks the end of a long and abusive chapter in state history during which we confined youth alongside adults despite ample evidence of harm. In a 1972 report on conditions for youth on Rikers Island, the city’s Board of Correction concluded flatly “the [adolescent] facility is the worst prison in the city.”
Four decades later, when the U.S. Justice Department trained its eye on city jails, they focused on the adolescent jail. Their investigation revealed conditions that were strikingly similar, alleging a “deep-seated culture of violence.”
While it is laudable that the governor and Legislature have acted, the new law creates a hybrid system that is nationally unprecedented and potentially dangerous.
At issue are several provisions that establish a quasi-adult system for the 16- and 17-year-olds who come before the courts. If incarcerated, unlike in any other state, these youth will go to facilities run jointly by adult and juvenile corrections personnel — facilities that do not currently exist and are particularly difficult for small counties to create.
This approach counteracts the intended goal of raising the age of criminal responsibility in the first place — namely, to treat youth like youth.
Most states for at least a century have set the age of adult incarceration at 18, in recognition of the abysmal conditions that young people in prison face, including significantly higher rates of sexual assault and suicide than in juvenile facilities.
When youths tried as adults are compared with similar youths tried as juveniles, those kept in the youth justice system fare better. Columbia University’s Jeffrey Fagan compared matched pairs of young people in New York and New Jersey (where young people are legally considered juveniles until age 18). The New York youth were re-arrested faster, more often and for more serious crimes than the New Jersey youth.
I recently interviewed several men in their late 50s who were locked up on Rikers Island as minors in the 1970s. Their stories were sickening. Robert (not his real name) told me that several boys viciously raped another youth in the bed right next to his and slashed another youth to near-death.
“A day hasn’t gone by since then that I haven’t thought of those boys,” he related.
In 2017, New York became the next-to-last state to pass legislation raising the Family Court age above 16. As state and local officials now scramble to implement the law, they must create a new type of facility for teenagers. The state basically gave up on the quest; if these new “adolescent offenders” receive state sentences, they will go to separate prisons rather than juvenile facilities.
Meanwhile, 12 counties north of New York City will share one facility in Westchester where youth accused of crimes as far away as Binghamton will be detained awaiting trial, far from their families or lawyers. And in New York City, corrections officers — the subject not long ago of federal legal action over mistreatment of young people at Rikers Island — repeatedly filed suit to not supervise such youth.
State lawmakers should be applauded for finally moving minors accused of crimes into Family Court, but this untested configuration has no justification in research or practice. The legislature and governor should amend it next year before it calcifies into a status quo that resists change. Having waited so long to reform this appalling system, we should not now settle for half measures.