NEW YORK (AP) — Every year, nearly 50,000 children arrested, charged and processed in New York are done so as adults — and a new coalition of advocates and lawmakers wants to change that.
The coalition of about two dozen groups launched a statewide public information campaign Thursday to change the way the state handles 16- and 17-year-old defendants, said Jennifer March-Joly, one of the coalition's organizers and the executive director of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York.
New York state is only one of two states — North Carolina is the other — that has kept its age of adult criminal responsibility at 16, she said.
"The time has come for New York state to do this."
The group has gained the support of singer Harry Belafonte, among others. It points to developmental research which has shown that brains don't fully form until age 25, and that adolescent decision making and behavior are impulsive and lack an appreciation of consequences, Joly said.
In 2011, New York's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, proposed sending all nonviolent juvenile offenders to family court, removing prosecutors' discretion over whether to keep those 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court. The state created pilot programs with new criminal courts called Adolescent Diversion Parts, dedicated to handling the cases of those older nonviolent teens, similar to existing drug, mental health and community courts for adults.
Through April, 3,317 adolescents have been diverted to the pilot parts in nine New York counties.
But the coalition say that all crimes — not just nonviolent ones — should be handled differently, noting about 75 percent of the some 50,000 annual cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds are misdemeanors.
Organizers say the details of the reform, which courts would handle juvenile cases, how the legislation should be written and who should write it, are still to be determined. The point, they insist, is simple: Children should be treated as children.
"Being tough on crime means being smart on crime," Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said in a statement. "Treating children like children is good for the juveniles, good for families, good for communities, good for public safety and just good common sense."
A bill addressing the change in law would have to be introduced in Albany next session. In North Carolina, a bill that would raise the age a juvenile can be charged as an adult for misdemeanors from 16 to 18 is in committee in the state House.