It's Time to Raise the Age, New York: There Are Better Alternatives for Teens

As a high school senior, Vaughan Thorpe stole a pair of Gucci loafers and was convicted of robbery, trading his prom and high school graduation for a prison sentence. Thorpe was a good kid, working to support his family and excelling in school, but his terrible choice derailed everything. Only 16, he wound up in a cell on Rikers Island, literally chained to adult men.

New York is the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes all youth as adults at age 16, regardless of the severity of the crime. A scathing report released last month by the U.S. Attorney's Office describes the conditions adolescents face on Rikers Island (emphasis is mine):

We conclude that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. [...] Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior. Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates -- many of whom are mentally ill -- in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.

As the President and CEO of a charity that serves the majority of teens in the Governor's Close to Home initiative who are struggling with severe emotional problems, substance abuse and problematic sexual behavior, I know that it's time to Raise the Age, New York.

Many of the teens we work with have already been subjected to the "deep-seated culture of violence" prevalent at Rikers. One of our teens, Cadeem Gibbs, recently spoke about his experience on Inside City Hall with Errol Louis, stating "the violence was condoned by the people who were supposed to mediate... You feel a sense of hopelessness." These experiences are not easily undone, when they can be undone at all. Both the convicted teen and society pay a high price for years to come. Like Vaughan, most of the teens did not commit violent offenses. They made mistakes - big ones - but they need rehabilitation, support, connections and mentors, not incarceration followed by a lifetime of labels, exclusion from opportunity and recidivism.

I do not claim to have all the answers. There is no right answer or magic bullet that will fix this enormous problem. But, let me share 10 lessons I have learned while doing this work, lessons that contribute to vastly more long-term success than violence and confinement:

1. Teens have to want to succeed.

Success is an attitude of the mind and a longing of the heart! There are no excuses and no one will give them success, they must earn it. Once this fundamental learning is established, we need to help teens develop a moral compass and help them experience success, because nothing inspires success more than experiencing success.

2. Relationships are key.

For each teen, the early identification of at least one stable, appropriate, and willing adult relationship is the foundation on which success is achieved.

3. Programs do not replace relationships or family.

In the absence of family, we must create a family. Many of the teens who are incarcerated are also in the foster care system and lack stable family connections. These teens must be identified early and connected to "family".

4. Invest in the people doing the work.

Inspire staff on the front lines to be courageous mentors. They are not just hired to do a job; they must lead the way.

5. Early engagement is essential.

There is no reason for teens to trust or respect us. We earn trust the old fashioned way by being dependable, available, and consistent.

6. There is no one-size-fits-all program.

Identify and separate the small subset of teens for whom a specific program is not working before their non-conforming behavior and choices influence the majority.

7. Treat mental illness -- correctly.

Differentiate between situational mental illness, which is the result of terrible life-experiences and pain, and chronic or persistent mental illness. Appropriately address and treat the two different types of illness.

8. Invest in long term support.

Focus on stability and recognize that this population needs support until at least age 23, often age 25. In the long-run, it will be an enormous savings if the teen becomes a self-sufficient adult, independent of government programs.

9. Support families.

Our approach cannot be exclusively child-focused. It must include adults who are committed to these children. They are the key to whether long-term success will be possible, and they deserve our unwavering support.

10. Invest in communities.

Build healthier, stronger communities that support and nurture children before they make poor choices. We all know where to start -- a map of poverty in New York City highlights neighborhoods like East New York, Brownsville, Mott Haven, and Highbridge. This is no surprise. And, if we swapped out "poverty rates" for racially segregated and failing schools, foster care placements, or unemployment, the same neighborhoods often show up - because these are all symptoms of the kind of despondency that paves the road to prison.

Finally, we need to constantly remind ourselves that these are not "bad" kids, but many of them are kids to whom bad things have happened. With help, these fragile teens can and will succeed -- but not by locking them up with adults. It's time to Raise the Age.

The above points were originally compiled for testimony delivered to the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice.

To learn more about the experiences of Vaughan Thorpe and other teens who served time in Rikers, watch Vaughan's docudrama One Last Chance.