Times Union: New York Court System Should Treat Youths as Youths: Commentary

By Monica Drinane and Stephanie Gendell

June 7, 2016

Raising the age at which youth are automatically charged as adults so that 16- and 17-year-old youth are charged in an age-appropriate way has been proven to protect public safety and produce better outcomes for youth, making it a win-win for everyone. Opponents of this common-sense reform are trying to wage a scare campaign. Don’t believe them.

Every state except North Carolina and New York has raised the age to 17 or 18. Some states are considering raising the age to 21. The bottom line is that treating youth as youth, rather than adults, reduces the chance that youth charged with a crime will re-offend. We know this because we have seen it in Family Court, and studies and statistics back those firsthand observations up. By trying to appear “tough on crime,” New York is actually failing to protect public safety.

You might wonder how that could be.

One reason is that Family Court is much more comprehensive than criminal court, particularly for so-called minor crimes. That’s important, because the overwhelming majority (over 75 percent) of the arrests of teenagers are for misdemeanors and other nonviolent offenses, such as shoplifting or getting into a fight at school.

From the very beginning, parents are notified, and brought into the process. That doesn’t happen in the adult system. In fact, when 16- or 17-years old are arrested in New York, their parents don’t have to be notified and may not even know the whereabouts of their own child.

In addition, Family Court judges have the ability to tailor the remedy to address the needs of the young person and his or her family. We can put a child in a secure facility when this is appropriate, but we can also make sure that facility includes services (like mental health services) that are necessary. We can make sure youth have curfews, attend school, or participate in after-school programming.

The adult system has very little opportunity to address the needs of the young person or his or her family. Youth with cases in the adult system do not have access to the services that have turned the lives of their slightly younger peers around.

This is a lost opportunity. In the Family Court system, all alleged crimes get serious scrutiny. And because parents are brought into the process from the very beginning, solutions can include the entire family. This is important, because often the underlying issues are family issues that require comprehensive solutions.

Do not get us wrong — youth with cases in Family Court face serious consequences — but without the dangers that come with being locked up with adults, where youth are at risk of violent assault. Family Court judges can and do send youth to secure facilities. But these juvenile placements provide the services that offer a chance to set him or her back on the right track. That’s one of the reasons that youth who go through the adult system are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a felony than someone who goes through the youth system.

Sometimes critics claim the Family Court system is too overwhelmed to handle these cases. That is not true. Unlike the adult criminal system where cases can linger, the Family Court has a true speedy trial law for juvenile delinquency cases. In New York City, on average these cases finish trial in less than two months and reach disposition (sentencing) in about three months — meaning that youth see the consequences of their actions right away, not three years later.

A recent lawsuit filed in federal court shows that the average time to trial for a misdemeanor case in Bronx Criminal Court is 827 days. This is an unconscionably long time for anyone, let alone a child, to wait — sometimes at Rikers Island. The tragedy of Kalief Browder, who took his own life after being held at Rikers Island for three years while awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, is another reminder that the adult system is not meant for youth.

If we want to do what’s right for our youth and our communities, we must raise the age at which a young person is charged as an adult to 18 immediately. New York’s youth cannot wait any longer. The state must pass Raise the Age legislation this session.