NEW YORK–New York is one of two states to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults. Some state politicians want to change the law so that anyone ages 16 or 17 goes to a youth court instead of an adult criminal court. Proponents of raising the age argue a higher age of criminal responsibility allows more teens to outgrow criminal behavior. Advocates say that teenagers outgrow criminal behavior when treated like teens instead of adults, a point supported by science. Bills that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried in juvenile courts were introduced to the State Legislature, one in the Assembly and one in the Senate, but the Assembly sponsor does not think either bill will pass.
Both bills were introduced in February and are currently stalled in committee. Calls to the New York State Assembly and Senate press offices about the bill yielded no answers.
Assemblyman Joseph Lentol wrote the Assembly version of the bill at the urging of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who advocates raising the age of juvenile jurisdic
tion. Lippman said in his State of the Judiciary speech that raising the age is an important step in bringing New York’s legal system up to date with the rest of the country. The only other state to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults in all cases is North Carolina.
New York and North Carolina are the last states to prosecute 16-year-olds as adults in all cases. Map by Jess Scanlon. Source: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Lentol said he agrees that it’s time for the law to change, but doubts the bill will become law soon. He said he would settle for age 17 as a compromise in the short term, but thinks no young person belongs in prison. He said prison is not a place he wants to see teenagers go.
“We know jail isn’t a good place for anyone to be in,” said Lentol.
Evidence for this argument comes from across the Hudson River. In New Jersey, juvenile jurisdiction is until age 17. Research by Temple University Developmental Psychology Professor Laurence Steinberg shows young people in New York are more likely to resume criminal behavior than New Jersey young people the same age. Young people from New York who have been previously convicted of a crime at either age 16 or 17 are more likely to be re-arrested for either violent crimes or felony property crimes and to return to prison than New Jersey teens have committed similar crimes at the same ages.
University of California Psychology Professor Elizabeth Cauffman said treating 16- and 17-year-old teenagers as adolescents, not as adults, is the best way to teach them their actions have consequences. She said that the brains of 16 and 17-year-old teenagers are not developed enough yet to allow these young people to control their impulses and think ahead.
Cauffman also said there should be some punishment because despite their immature brains, most 16-year-olds know the difference between right and wrong.
“Kids need to be held accountable,” said Cauffman, who researches adolescent development and juvenile justice. “The question is how accountable.”
Cauffman recommends an approach that emphasizes interventions like therapy over punishments like jail. She said teenagers should not be treated like adults because punishments affect them differently. Also she agrees with the raise the age movement.
“The kids in New York are not more mature at 16,” she said.