New York state should raise the age that youths can be tried and convicted as adults to 18, a commission appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended Monday.
Cuomo, speaking in Albany, said he planned to propose the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice as a legislative package to the State Assembly.
In a 164-page report, the commission said its recommendations would reduce by 1,500 to 2,400 the number of crimes against people across the state every five years while saving taxpayer dollars.
And pointing to states including Connecticut and Illinois that have raised the age of criminal responsibility, the report said recidivism and juvenile crime rates can be lowered through “evidence-based” interventions that steer nonviolent young offenders out of the juvenile justice system and into family mental health or other services.
“Extensive research on the significant negative impacts on adolescents of incarceration in adult jails and prisons has brought a sense of urgency for reform,” the report stated. “Higher suicide rates, increased recidivism, and many other measures all suggest that both offenders and their communities are harmed by placing adolescents into adult jails and prisons.”
Under the report’s recommendations, the age of criminal responsibility would be raised to 17 in January 2017 and to 18 in January 2018.
“I’m incredibly excited about the recommendations and particularly that the governor said he is going to present them as a package legislatively,” said commission member Emily Tow Jackson, executive director and president of The Tow Foundation, based in New Canaan, Conn.
“The recommendations go beyond just raising the age. They delve into how to actually create a system that’s fair and equitable and developmentally appropriate while still holding young people accountable and keeping our communities safe.”
Tow Jackson noted the recommendations call for the immediate removal of all youth under 18 from adult jails and prisons even if they have committed serious crimes and their cases were heard in adult criminal court.
‘So it’s a complete abolition of housing 16- and 17-year-olds or younger in adult jails and prisons,” Tow Jackson said.
In a statement, Cuomo’s office pointed out that black and Hispanic youths make up 33 percent of 16- and 17-year-old youths statewide but account for 72 percent of all arrests and 77 percent of felony arrests.
The statement said young men of color comprise 82 percent of youth sentenced to adult confinement and that inmates under 18 in adult jails and state prisons are much more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted and to commit suicide than adult inmates.
“The numbers are daunting and make clear that the state must change how it treats incriminated youth,” the statement said
New York and North Carolina are the only two states that prosecute all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
In the report, the commission stated: “After a thorough review of current New York State law and practice in both the criminal and juvenile justice systems; analysis of national practice and the raise-the-age experience in other states; consideration of input from hundreds of stakeholders across the state through focus groups, interviews, and public hearings; and site visits to current adult and juvenile confinement settings, the commission recommends that New York State phase in an increase in the age of juvenile jurisdiction to age 18.”
The report also pointed to scientific research on adolescent brain development. It has shown adolescents’ brains are not fully developed until later than previously believed, as late as the mid-20s, and also that adolescents are amenable to rehabilitation
The commission’s recommendations drew praise from advocates for children and juvenile justice reform, law enforcement officials, faith leaders and others that have sought to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state.
“We applaud Governor Cuomo for reaffirming his commitment to ensure that children charged with offenses are treated in an age-appropriate manner, reducing the likelihood that youth re-offend and protecting our communities,” the advocacy group Raise the Age New York said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the governor and legislature to bring New York’s legal system in line with scientific research and create outcomes that are best for public safety and our youth.”
Raise the Age New York says that each year, almost 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested and face the possibility of prosecution as adults in the state’s criminal justice system, the vast majority of them for minor crimes.
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, also praised the governor and the commission.
“On this day of remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. — I commend New York State, Governor Cuomo and the commission for proposing a package of reforms that bends toward justice for children and youths by treating them as children and youth and ensuring that they have the chance to turn their lives around and become productive citizens,” Edelman said in a statement.
“The governor and state legislature now have the opportunity to enact this long-overdue proposal, which would make New York state a leader in juvenile justice.”
And Nicholas Turner, president of the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, said in a statement the recommendations are “the first steps to creating non-punitive system responses that better serve the needs of youth, keep families together and enhance community safety.”
“At this age, young people are at a critical period in their cognitive development, so the nature of the state’s response to them after arrest can have lifelong consequences. We must ask ourselves: Do we want to trap them in cycles of poverty and system involvement out of a misguided desire for retribution? Or should we consider the damage a punitive response can have on youth and instead, offer them much-needed services, treatment, and guidance?”
Cuomo appointed the 16-member commission in April. Announcing creation of the commission in his 2014 State of the State address last January, Cuomo said, “It’s time to improve New York’s outdated juvenile justice laws and raise the age at which our children can be tried and charged as adults.”