It’s Time to Raise the Age

New York's criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. We are one of only two states in the country that automatically prosecute all youth as adults when they turn 16 (North Carolina is the other). Evidence shows this neither improves safety nor helps kids. Juveniles who are treated as adults are more likely to reoffend and more likely to be abused in the adult system, and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile facilities. Every year our elected officials fail to act, another 25,000-plus children will be at risk of cycling through this damaging system. 

Lawmakers are starting to recognize this treatment of youth as counterproductive, and advocates are working to raise the age of adult prosecutions to 18. This year, the state Legislature allocated $135 million of the budget toward implementing the policy change. However, in the rush to pass a budget on time, the Legislature did not come to an agreement on HOW to implement “Raise the Age.”

More of the same means our justice system will only continue to endanger youth and public safety, and a closer examination of the statistics is even more dismaying. Studies have found that young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system have approximately 34 percent more rearrests for felony crimes than kids retained in the youth justice system. Around 80 percent of kids released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes.

This shameful, immoral and unproductive policy is no small matter, especially for low-income youth of color. The vast majority of these arrests are for minor crimes (74 percent are misdemeanors). Black and Latino children make up more than 70 percent of these arrests. And the racial disparity is even more striking when you look at those sentenced to incarceration. Of those youth, 80 percent are black and Latino.

And while some may argue that some youth should be tried as adults because of the severity of their crimes, a more thoughtful approach looks at all external factors shaping the mindset of the accused. As a progressive society, we must look for solutions that effectively address the public health gaps that many incarcerated youth have fallen through. This approach would require the criminal justice system to distinguish between children who are committing crimes out of necessity or destitution and children who are simply committing crimes out of recreation or based on purposeful ill will.

The Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo must come to an agreement on how to implement “Raise the Age” before they adjourn at the end of June. The governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice, a group of legal, criminal justice and social services experts Cuomo appointed in 2014, provided clear recommendations on how to reform New York’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. Some of these changes include: 

  • Raising the overall age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18, consistent with other states.
  • Ensuring no 16- and 17-year-olds are placed in adult facilities.
  • Moving the majority of cases for 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court and creating a program in the adult system for youth who allegedly committed more violent crimes.
  • Expanding services, including alternatives to detention and incarceration, to keep youth in their communities and not locked up.

As leaders who have seen firsthand how the criminal justice system is affecting poor and minority youth, we can state with confidence that these changes would give young people a chance to emerge from the criminal justice system better prepared to make positive changes in their lives. What’s more, it would reverse New York's status as one if the least progressive states on criminal law and make it a national leader on juvenile justice and public safety. We should expect nothing less of our elected officials. 


Jennifer Jones Austin is CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies; the Rev. A.R. Bernard is founder, senior pastor and CEO of the Christian Cultural Center.