Raise the Age: State Should Try 16- and 17-Year-Olds as Juveniles, Not as Adults

Watertown Daily Times: Raise the age: State should try 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles, not as adults

January 13, 2017

A youthful lapse in judgment should not plague an individual forever.

But our state’s criminal justice system perpetuates this dilemma all too frequently. A 16- or 17-year-old who foolishly breaks the law in New York will drag a conviction around for the rest of his or her life.

The solution to this problem is for state lawmakers to amend the criminal code to treat anyone younger than 18 as a juvenile under most circumstances. Exceptions should be made for violent crimes such as sexual assault and murder. Someone who engages in these types of crimes must be removed from society for a long time to protect the rest of us.

But there’s no defense for saddling young people with criminal records for less serious offenses until they die — which, if they are forced to forever live as criminals, may be much sooner than they anticipate. They have many years ahead to redeem themselves and become productive citizens.

Their ability to do this, however, is severely challenged with adult convictions pinned on them. Many employers won’t consider hiring them, and key social services designed to help poor people get back on their feet are off limits to individuals who have been found guilty of felonies.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pushed members of the state Legislature to pass a bill to raise the age of adult offenders to 18. But Republicans in the state Senate have resisted this measure.

Many have expressed concerns about how amending the law in this manner would affect the juvenile justice system. They have a valid point in that this would exacerbate an already existing problem.

But this doesn’t negate the fundamental fairness of preventing juveniles from becoming ensnared in the adult court system. Yes, directing even more youths to juvenile court and juvenile penal facilities will require additional resources.

Trying to administer justice on the cheap, however, has never worked. Imprisoning youths along with adult criminals is a recipe for disaster. North Carolina is the only other state in the nation to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults; it’s time for New York to join the rest of the country in remedying this problem.

On Dec. 30, Mr. Cuomo contributed what he could to resolving this problem by issuing more than 100 pardons to individuals convicted of crimes they committed when they were 16 and 17. These are the first to be issued since he created his executive youth pardon program more than a year ago.

The pardons are conditional, meaning they will be withdrawn from anyone convicted in the future. According to information from the governor’s office, the program carries the following requirements for pardons to be issued:

  • The person was 16 or 17 at the time they committed the crime for which they were convicted;
  • At least 10 years have passed since the person was either convicted of the crime or released from a period of incarceration for that crime, if applicable;
  • The person has been conviction-free since that time;
  • The person was convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony;
  • The person was not originally convicted of a sex offense;
  • The person is a state resident;
  • The person has paid taxes on any income; and
  • The person is a productive member of his or her community, meaning that the individual is working, looking for work, in school or legitimately unable to work.

The executive youth pardon program created by Mr. Cuomo will, over time, help those who have already gone through the adult system as juveniles and are living with the consequences. Now it’s time for state lawmakers to look out for those who have yet to be ensnared by increasing the age of adult offenders to 18. If children are the future of this nation, those who make mistakes as young people need the freedom to turn their lives around for the better.