New York State's top corrections official said this week that he supports moving all adolescent inmates off Rikers Island. His statement raises hopes for an end to what the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a scathing recent report, called a "deep-seated culture of violence" against youth in the United States' second-largest jail, where the vast majority of inmates are adults.
The announcement by Commissioner Joe Ponte follows a pledge by Preet Bharara, the US Attorney, to push for "real, enduring and enforceable reforms at Rikers." According to his investigators, staff members there failed to protect adolescents against violence from other inmates, used "rampant, unnecessary and excessive force" against children in their care, and relied excessively on the use of solitary confinement as a form of discipline.
New York State's criminal law stands out in treating 16- and 17-year olds as adults. While all states allow for children-defined under international law as anyone under 18-to be prosecuted as adults in certain instances, New York is one of only two states (the other is North Carolina) that automatically prosecutes all 16- and 17-year olds as adults, even for misdemeanors. (Eight states automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults). New York's Department of Correction usually houses about almost 500 inmates, ages 16 and 17, in one of Rikers' 10 jail facilities.
It's well established that prosecuting children in the adult criminal justice system is harmful both to the children prosecuted and to the rest of society. Studies have shown that children incarcerated in adult jails and prisons are more likely to be physically and sexually abused -- as Rikers so clearly illustrates-and to attempt suicide, particularly if subjected to solitary confinement. Children prosecuted as adults reoffend more often, and commit more serious crimes, than do those who remain in the juvenile system. Despite these findings, some 7,000 children are being held in adult jails nationwide.
Science and common sense tell us that children are not miniature adults. Their bodies and brains are still maturing. They are more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to take long-term consequences into account when making decisions. Perhaps most important, they are typically more capable of changing for the better. All this was clear as far back as 1899, when the first juvenile court in the US was established in Illinois, with rehabilitation as its explicit goal. And these unique characteristics are why many international treaties provide children with special rights, and why the US Supreme Court has prohibited the death penalty and mandatory life without parole sentences for children.
The adult criminal system is not equipped to take children's needs and traits -- and special rights -- into account at any stage of the prosecution process. Unlike a juvenile court, the adult system is punitive by design. Once convicted in adult court, children acquire adult criminal records that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. A criminal conviction obtained at age 16 can prevent a person from getting a job decades later, and can make it difficult to obtain housing and student loans. In researching a recent report, I spoke to dozens of kids who had been prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system in Florida. They reported being confused by court proceedings, abused in the adult institutions where they were incarcerated, and plagued by records that branded them criminals for life. "I felt like my life was gone," one 17-year-old, in adult prison for a crime he committed at 16, told me. I can't imagine that New York's children fare any better when put through the adult system.
People younger than 18 cannot vote, drink, or rent a car in any US state. Just this year, New York raised the age at which someone can buy cigarettes to 21. Yet the state continues to treat all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes as if they were adults. Fortunately, there is a growing campaign to raise the age at which a person can be prosecuted as an adult in New York, and Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has established a commission in support of that goal. Moving kids off Rikers Island would be an essential step, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that the better approach would be not to treat adolescents as adults in the first place.