Our nation’s prison system faces a systemic, fundamental problem that must be addressed.
Over the past 40 years, the prison population in the United States has increased 500%, with 2.2 million people currently incarcerated. Together, we have the responsibility and opportunity to reverse that trend and reform a criminal justice system that has grown too big and too unfair, especially to our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable: 16- and 17-year-olds who are ensnared in the adult criminal justice system.
The challenges of mass incarceration are uniform across many states. It is difficult to find employment with a criminal record, and there is an acute need for better drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. Glaringly, New York and North Carolina stand alone in compounding these systemic challenges as the only two states that automatically process all 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system, no matter the alleged offense.
In New York, approximately 86% of the 27,000 teenage arrests in 2015 were for non-violent crimes, and these arrests disproportionately affected communities of color. Black and Hispanic youth in New York make up only 33% of 16- and 17-year-olds across the state. But they are 82% of youths sentenced to adult confinement.
However serious the alleged offense, these minors must, by law, enter the adult criminal justice system where they face imprisonment in local county jails or state prisons alongside adults. No judicial or prosecutorial discretion is possible. These teenagers are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their peers in juvenile facilities. They are also at greater risk of being injured by prison staff and of committing suicide.
In New York specifically, we have worked hard over the past three years to address this injustice and move the state to the right side of the ledger. In 2015, the state's Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice provided recommendations to modernize New York’s criminal juvenile justice system, including raising the age of criminal responsibility. Following those recommendations, the governor proposed Raise the Age legislation, calling on the state to process 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles for all crimes except those involving serious violence. When the legislature failed to act on this bill, the governor issued executive order No. 150, to remove minors from adult prisons and to instead place them in age-appropriate facilities with the promise of rehabilitation services and a chance for a better future. While this order requires that teenage offenders are housed more appropriately, it is only an interim step and does not solve the underlying unfairness of trying youth as adults. Passage of the pending Raise the Age legislation is the only way to ensure that we treat our young people fairly.
So, in 2017, here we are again, staring down the same issue. It has been proved that raising the age of criminal responsibility and implementing measures to help rehabilitate young offenders reduce both crime and cost to taxpayers. For example, youths processed as adults are 34% more likely to be arrested again than those processed as juveniles. Will New York continue to ignore these facts, and the harm done to our juvenile offenders?
Some problems have no clear or proven solution. This one does. Recognize the distinction between youths and adults, and ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit less serious crimes receive necessary intervention and treatment.
Today, we can do more than reflect, we can take action to once and for all reform New York’s juvenile criminal law and conform to a logical, humane, cost-efficient standard. The other 48 states can’t all be wrong.