Youth and juvenile justice advocates in New York notched a huge victory on Sunday, when state lawmakers voted to raise the age of people charged and imprisoned as adults. By October 2019, teenagers under the age of 18 will no longer be funneled through jails and prisons that house much older offenders, subject them to violence, and increase the likelihood that they’ll end up as lifelong offenders.
Before Sunday, New York was one of two states that prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. But under a provision in the $163 billion state budget passed by the state legislature this weekend, New York will now divert them to family and youth courts and detain them in juvenile facilities. The age of criminal responsibility will be raised to 17 years old by October 2018, and 18 years old by October 2019.
According to Raise the Age New York, a campaign that has pushed the state to change the age of criminal responsibility, the reform will impact approximately 28,000 16 and 17-year-olds who are arrested annually. In New York, more than 70 percent of underage arrestees are Black or Latino, as are 80 percent of those who are ultimately locked up.
“Putting aside the fact that psychologists will testify that 16- and 17-year-olds often are not mentally mature, the reality of putting a 16- or 17-year-old in the same facility as hardened adult criminals is, on its face, cruel and unusual,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said of the legislation.
The reform signifies that the state is ready to prioritize young people’s rehabilitation, as opposed to treating them like criminals.
Juvenile justice researchers have long documented the adverse consequences that come with criminalizing youth. The risk of sexual assault is five times higher in adult facilities than in juvenile facilities. To reduce the likelihood of abuse, in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, prison staff often throw youth into solitary confinement, which has disastrous psychological and physiological effects.
The probability that young people attempt suicide also skyrockets when held in adult prisons. And they are far more likely to become long-time criminals than their counterparts in the juvenile system, in part because adult facilities typically lack resources to facilitate academic, social, and emotional development.
This is the second major criminal justice victory New York has scored in the last two weeks. At the urging of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently agreed to shut down Rikers Island, the notoriously violent jail complex, over the next 10 years.