In most states, juveniles who commit crimes are charged and prosecuted as adults only if the crime is a serious or violent felony. However, North Carolina and New York charge and prosecute every 16- and 17-year-old as an adult – regardless of the offense. More than 27,000 youths who were 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in 2015 in New York, and on any given day, about 700 youths 16- and 17-years-old are locked up in New York’s adult jails, including Rikers, awaiting the outcome of their cases.

A youthful indiscretion should not haunt a person for the rest of his or her life, but a 16- or 17-year-old who is convicted of a crime in New York will carry that conviction permanently. People who want to raise the age of adult responsibility in New York, including the “Raise the Age New York” advocacy group, say that the practice of placing youths in jails with adults is harming not only those young people but all of us with its high social and economic cost.

Juveniles with adult convictions often have trouble finding employment as adults, and many social services aimed helping the poor are off limits to persons with criminal convictions. According to Raise the Age New York, state lawmakers should revise New York law so that anyone younger than 18 who is charged with a crime will be considered a juvenile in most circumstances. Exceptions would be made only for violent felonies.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN JUVENILES ARE INCARCERATED WITH ADULTS?

Governor Andrew Cuomo has asked New York’s lawmakers to raise the age of adult offenders in our state to age 18, but legislators have resisted taking this step. Some are concerned that such a change would overload the state’s already-stressed juvenile justice system. Admittedly, overhauling the juvenile justice system would require some resources from the taxpayers, but the current system is far costlier in the long run. Why? Because youths who serve jail time with convicted adult criminals are not being rehabilitated – in fact, they are learning more about being criminals.

At the end of 2016, Governor Cuomo issued more than one hundred pardons to persons who had been convicted of crimes committed when they were 16- or 17-years-old. These pardons are conditional, so they can be withdrawn from anyone convicted of a crime in the future. Legislation to raise the age of adult offenders in New York to 18 is currently languishing in the New York State Senate, where there has been no progress on the proposal since May 2016.

The proposal would not only raise the age of adult offenders in the state of New York to 18, but it would also would keep anyone under age 18 out of the state’s adult prisons, ensure the presence of a parent or a guardian during interrogations and sentencing, and require additional funding for family support centers and special care for children with significant behavioral health issues.

WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH TELL US?

Since the 1980s, a number of research studies have been conducted regarding the impact of imprisonment on juveniles. A 2007 study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found that putting children under the age of 18 into the adult criminal justice system increases their violent behavior over time and makes it more likely that they will commit crimes as adults.

The report stated: “In general, juveniles differ from adults in their biologic development and mental processes and capacities. Juveniles are less aware of consequences, less able to regulate impulses or inhibit behavior, and thus less culpable for their actions than adults. In addition, juveniles have less ability to understand and thus participate in the standard adult judicial process. Finally, juveniles are more malleable and amenable to reform of their behavior.”

New York’s incarceration of juvenile offenders with adult criminals also has a disparate impact on minority youths. According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, black and Hispanic youths comprise 72 percent of all juvenile arrests in this state and 77 percent of all juvenile felony arrests in New York. Eighty-two percent of convicted young black males are sent to adult prisons.

WHAT STEPS SHOULD YOU TAKE IF YOUR CHILD IS ARRESTED?

When a juvenile is arrested and charged with a crime in the state of New York, parents should contact an experienced New York criminal defense lawyer with Family Court experience. Nothing is a higher priority than your child’s future. If your child is in trouble with the criminal justice system, a second chance and a little forgiveness are all that most young people need. If your child has been arrested for committing any crime in the state of New York, arrange to speak with an experienced New York criminal defense lawyer who routinely handles cases involving juvenile defendants.

Clergy and activists from around the state rallied at the Capitol Building in Albany in January to urge New York’s lawmakers to raise the age of adult offenders to 18 in 2017. “These teenagers are not adults, and they should not be treated as adults,” said Robb Smith, the director of New York’s Interfaith Impact group. “We know a lot more about human development and psychology now than we did a hundred years ago.”

Why is there opposition to raising the age of adult offenders to 18? Assemblymember Steve McLaughlin, a Republican from Troy, explained: “Many people in this chamber view it as a gang recruitment act, a free pass to family court. Maybe there’s some middle ground that we can get to, but to blanket this and say anybody 16 and 17 years old is gonna end up in family court, it doesn’t necessarily sit well with everybody.”

Nevertheless, there is still some hope that the legal situation for juveniles in New York might change in 2017. New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie says that he is making it a priority to raise the age this year. Early in January, Heastie told his colleagues in the New York State Assembly, “Today, 16- and 17-year-olds are still being sentenced to adult correctional facilities, where they do not belong. It is time our partners in government join us in passing and enacting a measure to move these cases to family court, where they belong.”

By: Kimberly Pelesz

Family law and criminal defense attorney Kimberly A. Pelesz received a B.S. degree magna cum laude and an M.P.A. degree summa cum laude from Binghamton University. She earned her J.D. from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, where she was selected for Phi Alpha Delta. Her charitable activities include work with My Sisters’ Place in White Plains and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Humane Education Taskforce.

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