Some teenage behavior can be characterized as criminal. Shoplifting is a crime. Fighting in school can be a crime. Trespassing is a crime. Graffiti is a crime. Smoking marijuana is a crime. There are plenty of adolescents everywhere that commit these crimes but are not treated as criminals. There are other youth, however, who do get arrested and prosecuted.
If you look at New York State’s juvenile justice population, it is clear that we arrest, prosecute and jail adolescents of color almost exclusively. As you might guess, the majority come from the poorest communities in New York City.
Fortunately, Juvenile Justice reform is underway in New York City and State. For the first time in a very long time, almost everyone working in the system finally seems to agree that adolescents fare better with their families and robust community support than in detention or placement. It sounds simple and logical that children should not be systematically removed from their families; and that, as an alternative, teens and their families should be supported so they can remain intact.
For low-income children of color, the “crimes” listed above–trespassing, fighting, et cetera–are often seen as signs of a child being “out of control” and even as evidence that a child cannot safely live in his community. For many middle-class and upper income white children, these same behaviors are routinely seen as a normal part of adolescence and are dealt with inside schools and homes even if they rise to the level of a “crime”. A first step in true reform is the acknowledgment that the same set of behaviors considered “typical teenage behavior” for one portion of the population is used to justify the widespread incarceration of another portion.
It is not, however, enough to simply acknowledge the racial disproportionality of the juvenile justice system nor to state that children in the system should remain in their homes and communities. Meaningful juvenile justice reform is not simple; instead, it is a very complex undertaking. Reform efforts must be guided by a meaningful action plan to reduce racial disproportionality, a response to juvenile delinquency’s root causes and a commitment to viewing youth in the justice system first and foremost as children, not criminals.
To be effective, reform strategies must address the root problem, which is the world in which these children find themselves living, through no fault of their own: a world in which school systems fail, families are fractured and stressed, appropriate and meaningful services are few and far between and the police are seen as the enemy rather than a part of the community. We must take a broader look and work harder and more seriously at addressing the insidious social issues that are truly what drive detention and placement and result in racial disproportionality. We should never be in the position of sending a child to an out-of-home placement or jail because we feel their communities are unsafe or their families are unsupported; there is no place in the law where that is allowable or just.
In New York, children charged with delinquency are between the ages of 7 and 15, and 13- to 15-year-olds can be charged as adults for certain crimes. Additionally we are one of only two states that charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Truth is, there is no magic number that deems someone ready to be an adult or be held criminally responsible, but it does seem incongruous that in so many public policy areas other than the penal law–the drinking and voting age, statutory rape laws, even the ability to sign school permission slips–we are able to see that adolescents are not adults. Adolescence is a time of learning. Risks are taken and sometimes poor choices are made. An abundance of scientific research demonstrates that the adolescent brain is not fully developed and that, as a consequence, adolescents are less likely to be able to assess risk and consequence. Given this fact, punitive approaches that do not recognize the realities of adolescent development will not be effective and will neither help children or protect communities.
Lastly, as we all know, accountability comes in many forms. We should all be held accountable in age-appropriate ways. But it is completely inappropriate is to hold these children accountable for every adult, community and educational system that has clearly failed to work together to provide them with a safe, hopeful and loving environment. Effective responses to juvenile crime must be responsive to children’s unique needs and development; teens need guidance, support and the love of a family, not barbed wire and restraints. Every child has greatness inside him or her, even ones who commit acts that are defined as crimes, and if we fail to give that child the opportunity and support to realize that greatness, we are at fault. Where is our collective accountability when a child age 13 ends up in prison?
Tamara Steckler is the Attorney in Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice of the Legal Aid Society.