Right and Just to Raise the Age of Criminal Accountability
This blog was originally published in the Times Union on March 6. 2017. It was co-authored by Tamara Steckler and Melissa Mark-Viverito. Melissa Mark-Viverito is the New York City Council speaker. Tami Steckler is attorney-in-charge of the juvenile rights practice at The Legal Aid Society.â€‹
Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposes to finally raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York state, no longer treating all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. This change is long overdue. New York state would be the 49th state to raise the age of criminal responsibility above 16 — in front of only North Carolina.
Studies over the last 15 years continue to arrive at the same conclusion: Teenagers should be evaluated for criminal culpability much differently than adults because their brains continue to develop far past adolescence and are not fully formed until their early to mid-20s. This developmental difference limits the capacity to exercise sound judgment, reasoning, and impulse control, and the ability to resist peer pressure. It also recognizes that youth respond to different kinds of intervention than adults, intervention that is available in the juvenile justice system.
In a series of decisions since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized this research on adolescent brain development and ruled that age should be a mitigating factor when assessing teenagers' behavior and culpability.
Additionally, a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice report concluded the "practice of transferring juveniles for trial and sentencing in adult criminal court has produced the unintended effect of increasing recidivism, particularly in violent offenders, and thereby of promoting lifetime criminality.
New York's current system also poses many life-altering collateral consequences for youth. Adult convictions can bar teenagers from public housing, deprive them of certain benefits, and prevent them from participating in rehabilitative programs or receiving financial aid for college.
It is an excessively harsh system that indeed promotes "life-course criminality" instead of fostering recovery and a successful re-entry into society. New York has a system that recognizes that a mistake in adolescence should not burden a person for a lifetime, and that adolescent behavior should be forgiven and forgotten once appropriate accountability is accomplished — the juvenile justice system.
It should also be founded on the belief that if detention is necessary, it should mirror a social service setting that promotes healing and growing instead of punishment.
Indeed, meaningful educational opportunities and true rehabilitative services have been shown to keep teens connected to positive and productive futures.
These goals can be accomplished without sacrificing public safety.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility across the country has been shown to reduce recidivism and meet public safety needs.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has made tremendous efforts to advance the state towards reform — something Cuomo supports.
Our hope is that this commitment does not waver. Halfway measures, such as "Adolescent Parts" in adult courts or partially utilizing the Family Court laws and processes sorely miss the point: 16- and 17-year-olds are adolescents.
True reform recognizes this fact, and allows for the juvenile justice system to be applied to ensure these children are treated in a fundamentally fair and just way.
Our current system has upended too many New York families and put children on a path of lifetime. It perpetuates harmful racial bias and decreases public safety.
Let's right this wrong and join the other 48 states who have recognized that raising the age is sound policy and simply the right thing to do.
Melissa Mark-Viverito is the New York City Council speaker. Tami Steckler is attorney-in-charge of the juvenile rights practice at The Legal Aid Society.