They can’t vote, drink or smoke, or even watch an NC-17 movie.
Why not? Because the science says their brains haven’t developed enough to fully appreciate consequences or to control impulses.
Yet New York is one of only two states – along with North Carolina – that thinks 16- and 17-year-olds belong in prison where they can learn from hardened criminals. Even Texas – the poster state for most things backward – has concluded that makes no sense.
Last year, state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed a Youth Court Act to raise New York’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 for nonviolent offenses. A bill by Legislature Democrats would raise the age for most crimes while retaining the flexibility to treat kids as adults when warranted. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month proposed a commission to come up with changes by year’s end.
With all of that momentum toward common-sense reform, what could possibly go wrong? In a word: politics.
It’s no coincidence that the governor’s panel won’t report until after November’s elections. As the 1990s hype about “superpredators” morphs into 2014 fears of a supposed “knockout game,” few politicians have the guts to argue against the waste – of lives and tax dollars – of incarceration compared to job training and rehabilitation.
The failure of the current approach is clear. According to a 2011 National Conference of State Legislatures report, “youth adjudicated as adults are more likely to be re-arrested, to re-offend, to re-offend more quickly, and to re-offend with more serious crimes” than those who are treated as juveniles.
The science is equally compelling. MacArthur Foundation research concludes that, while a 16-year-old’s reasoning mirrors that of adults, “adolescents’ other common traits – their short-sightedness, their impulsivity, their susceptibility to peer influences – can quickly undermine their decision-making capacity.” Those “psychosocial” capabilities continue developing well into early adulthood, making teens “less guilty by reason of adolescence” while also making them more amenable to rehabilitation.
We’re talking about salvaging more than 45,000 young lives each year in New York, with the vast majority – 75 percent – arrested for misdemeanors. Division of Criminal Justice Services data shows that only 3.3 percent are arrested for “serious crimes” in which even those under 16 could be tried in adult courts.
Not surprisingly, given lingering biases, more than 79 percent of these young people sent to jail or prison are black or Hispanic. Instead of being more crime-prone, MacArthur found that they “receive harsher treatment than whites for the same offenses.”
“It’s not about being soft on crime; it’s about being smart on crime,” said Stephanie Gendell of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York.
Gendell outlined the issues at last weekend’s New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in Albany. But she was preaching to the choir. The challenge will be in a Senate controlled in part by Republicans who – as a party – shun both science and anything seen as making life more fair for people of color.
On the other hand, maybe they’ll be persuaded by the waste – of dollars and lives – and the chance to show that New York can be just as enlightened as Texas.