I’ve spent 15 years working inside New York’s justice system, representing teenagers and doing research inside juvenile facilities. When the New York State Legislature passed legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, I viewed this change not as resolution of a long-standing problem within New York’s justice system, but rather as a step toward needed reforms of our state’s juvenile justice system.
Advocates for raising the age of criminal responsibility believe kids should be treated as kids, not adults. Youth should be housed in juvenile residential and detention facilities, not in adult jails and prisons. They should receive services and treatment that are age-appropriate and avoid the stain of an adult criminal conviction on their records. Underlying support for raise the age is the belief that the juvenile justice system is better for young people and that they receive the services they need to grow up and out of crime.
My research inside juvenile facilities suggests otherwise. In my forthcoming book, Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People, I argue that while the facilities have improved dramatically since the days of broken bones and hidden abuses, kids still lack the services, opportunities and access to positive relationships that they need in order to develop into healthy adults.
Much of the focus of reforms in juvenile facilities in recent years has been on the expansion of treatment opportunities. Yet juvenile facilities are more than just 24-hour treatment programs: They are places where teenagers and staff live, eat, learn, read, write and develop. Thus, when the primary focus of reforms is on treatment, the rest of the time that young people spend in the facilities is overlooked.
I’ve observed their time in facilities to be stultifying rather than nurturing. I’ve seen teenagers modify their behavior only temporarily because the programs they engaged in demanded that they show complete deference to authority.
I observed bored teenagers spending hours in front of televisions. I watched teachers struggle with outdated textbooks and materials. I met with kids eager to use their bodies to play sports and be active and yet sports fields go unused. Young people who want to read, write, act or draw have extremely limited access to libraries and little to no arts programming. They may get lucky and find themselves in a facility with an eager volunteer smuggling in arts supplies, or a staff member who has created a reading group, but these opportunities are rare.
I sat in lunchrooms where young people ate in silence, not allowed to talk to each other; even though friendships are a key marker of development, they are discouraged.
As little time as is spent on enriching their lives while they’re inside, even less is spent on preparing them for release. Many staff members in facilities don’t know anything about employment, housing, medical or mental health resources for kids in the community.
I’ve spent hours working on college applications, financial aid forms, housing applications, psychosocial evaluations and program referrals and even paying for toiletries and clothing for young people preparing to leave custody. As much as the state has improved these services, I continue to see teenagers dumped at home without adequate forms of identification, educational records or even just the name of a program.
The state must fund purposeful activities for kids in facilities and develop reentry programming that starts the day that they arrive. Staff members in facilities should be trained to prepare psychosocial evaluations, to complete housing and college applications, and to navigate mental health and community-based resources. The funding for arts and athletics that exists for public schools in our communities across the state must also be provided to schools in the facilities; these are our children, too.
Facilities themselves cannot solve our problems. We need to expand access to programs that are alternatives to incarceration such as restorative justice practices, family therapy, mentoring and community mental health services. I believe in these programs: I’ve had many clients succeed in them.
But one thing I have learned is that alternatives to incarceration for young people rarely exist in rural areas. This means that judges there have few options but to send young people to facilities. It is imperative that the state and counties provide funding to expand the range of alternative to incarceration programs in cities across the state.
Alexandra Cox, Ph.D., is a research scholar in law at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, a former Soros Justice Fellow and a mitigation specialist who has worked at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and the Drug Policy Alliance.