Treat kids like kids until 18
The state Senate should be ashamed of itself. For the second time in as many years, it has refused (so far) to give serious consideration to widely supported efforts to make sure 16- and 17-year-olds don’t get sent to the adult criminal justice system when they get into trouble with the law. The right policy solution — doing what all neighboring states do and treating kids like kids until their 18th birthday — is simple. Now New York just needs the political will to do the right thing.
The facts, indeed, have widespread agreement on both the left and the right. The two of us, one a conservative think tank leader and one a progressive youth advocate, think the same way about this issue — as do Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Assembly and many law enforcement experts around the state.
We are not alone. The National Association of Counties, the American Bar Association, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Correctional Association all support this smart-on-crime policy.
A bevy of research has shown the state’s current policy is simply bad for public safety. Children under 18 who are charged as adults commit more additional crimes and get involved in more serious offenses than their peers who remain in the rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice system.
Adult prisons are necessary for some offenders, to be sure, but sending children in trouble with the law into the clutches of hardened criminals simply ends up turning many misguided kids into career criminals.
This shouldn’t be surprising; high school students are known for needing adult support and guidance in order to navigate the complexities of adolescence. And even those who end up in the adult system but don’t actually serve a prison sentence still carry around the lifelong stigma of a public criminal record.
And it isn’t just a matter of dry academic research. The five states that have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in the past decade (Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Hampshire) have all seen falling arrests, lower correctional system costs and generally sinking crime rates.
To be clear, we aren’t calling for a simple slap on the wrist for offenders. The juvenile justice system isn’t a walk in the park for those caught up in it. Well-run programs put very real demands on their participants, and for many offenses, sentences can be just as long as those in the adult system. The few children who commit very serious offenses like murder and violent rape, likewise, are almost always eligible to be tried as adults in New York and everywhere else.
Indeed, it’s particularly disappointing that, while the Senate dithers, other states, some of which allow 17-year-olds to be charged routinely as adults, are taking action. Both South Carolina and Louisiana have recently introduced bills that keep most children out of the adult criminal justice system. And Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in his State of the State speech highlighted that this is a priority for Louisiana.
Michigan is also considering similar legislation, and both Missouri and Wisconsin had legislation introduced this session. In short, America is adopting a smart-on-crime idea that has been proven to improve public safety: Children should get different treatment than adults in the criminal justice system.
Failing to take action now represents nothing but a surfeit of cowardice on the part of the state Senate. The Empire State’s kids and communities deserve better. New York should raise the age.