Juvenile Justice Reform in NY State: Raise the Age

Co-authored by Abigail Baird, Associate Professor of Psychology at Vassar College.

Every year, about 660 high school graduates become students at Vassar College. They spend four years getting their bachelor's degree, which then affords them myriad opportunities upon graduation. This is a time when these young people transition from adolescence to young adulthood, and prepare themselves for leading productive and interesting lives.

In New York State currently, roughly the same number of teens who begin their time at Vassar, boys mostly, are incarcerated as adults for non-violent crimes. Most of these teenagers, 16- and 17-year-olds, come from lower-income families and are African American or Latino.

In contrast to students who attend our college, most incarcerated teens did not get the support they needed from others when they made mistakes, and were not given the opportunity to learn from them. Instead, the future paths for these young people are transformed for the worse and unnecessarily so, by treating them as adults in the New York State criminal justice system when evidence clearly demonstrates that they are not.

It is well known among neuroscientists that both the structure and functionality of the human brain do not reach adult form until the early 20's. The prefrontal cortex, known for its central role in reasoning, decision-making and behavioral regulation is the last place in the teen brain to mature. In terms of behavior, adolescents are known to be incapable of adult levels of abstract reasoning, impulse control and appreciation of future outcomes until well after their eighteenth birthdays. This has been acknowledged in two separate rulings of the United States Supreme Court, as well as by forty-eight of our country's fifty states.

New York is one of only two states in our country choosing to treat the missteps of 16- and 17-year-old individuals as criminal behavior that automatically places them in the adult penal system. There is an abundance of documentation on the enormous economic costs of these decisions, as well as the significantly higher rates of recidivism and long-term incarceration that await juveniles sentenced to adult prisons.

The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice has examined the effectiveness of prosecuting teens as adults by comparing outcomes in the New York juvenile justice system with those observed in our neighboring state of New Jersey. The study found that teens who were prosecuted in the adult courts in New York were 85 percent more likely to be re-arrested for violent crimes than those prosecuted in the New Jersey juvenile courts. Further, they were 44 percent more likely to be re-arrested for felony property crimes. The odds of re-arrest were greatest for youths with no prior arrest record who were prosecuted and sentenced as adults, underscoring the enduring psychological damage associated with these practices. Treating juveniles as adults may in fact create career criminals. Perhaps most interestingly, youths who received lighter sanctions, or whose cases were dismissed, were significantly less likely to be re-arrested.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing that these adolescents be treated in the criminal justice system as the children that they are. We support this initiative and are seeing welcome progress from state legislators. In April, New York lawmakers budgeted $135 million for the Raise the Age policy, a move that would allow older teens charged with non-violent crimes to go before Family Courts instead of criminal courts. Governor Cuomo also agreed to introduce separate legislation during this session to show how New York state would help local courts and jurisdictions implement the changes.

As educators, we understand the benefits of letting young people learn from their mistakes. By incarcerating them as adults, we set them on a path that makes further education almost impossible, condemns them to a dismal future and costs society significantly more than evidence-based diversion practices that have been shown to reduce recidivism. Some of the more successful practices include counseling, supervision by a juvenile court officer or the temporary placement of the juvenile with persons other than his or her parents or custodian, with all of these practices tailored, importantly, to the strengths of the communities in which they are offered.

The primary purpose of the teen years is social and emotional learning, and learning inevitably involves mistakes. The teenage brain is primed to learn everything it needs to learn to thrive in the adult world; little if any of this learning is possible within the adult penal system. By placing teens in an adult prison during their prime years for social and emotional development, we rob them of their chance to learn from the mistake that got them in trouble in the first place. We take away the option of teaching them how to negotiate tough situations and become increasingly self-reliant. In other words, we give them a "life sentence." No one should receive that punishment for an immature and impulsive nonviolent act.