In my work for a foundation committed to reducing juvenile crime and improving public safety, I’ve seen advances in New York State that have made our communities safer and our justice system more just.
We’ve funded nonprofit groups that improved educational services for teenagers in detention and correctional facilities, so that these teens would have an opportunity to turn their lives around. Other groups have expanded mental health treatment options for young offenders.
Now it’s time to do more. For five years, The New York Community Trust and others have recommended downsizing and decentralizing New York’s system of juvenile prisons. In 2013, the state took a step in reforming the system, agreeing to keep juveniles closer to home. These reforms save taxpayers millions of dollars, holding young offenders accountable for their misdeeds while giving them an opportunity to repair their lives and become productive citizens.
This year, New York is considering the next step in protecting our communities: raising the age at which young people are charged as adults to 18 (leaving North Carolina as the only state charging 16 and 17 year olds as adults for all crimes), and moving the majority of cases for 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court while creating a new Youth Part in the criminal court system for more serious crimes.
These reforms were suggested by Gov. Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice, made up of law enforcement, social service and criminal justice experts.
My deep experience in this area tells us these kinds of changes will help keep our communities safe, even as they treat young offenders fairly. Several studies have shown that charging teenagers as adults makes it more likely that they will re-offend, putting our communities at risk. By charging teens in the Family Court system, judges are better able to make sure they get the services they need to go on to live a productive life.
Let’s be clear: We don’t want to be “soft” on crime; we want to be smart on crime. For some crimes, incarceration is the right punishment. But incarcerating teens in adult prisons is counterproductive and dangerous.
Not only do approximately 80 percent of young people released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes, but they are unsafe in adult prisons. Those sent to adult prison rather than youth facilities are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon. Young people in adult prisons face the highest risk of sexual assault.
That’s why Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, to keep the young out of adult facilities. New York needs to comply with this federal law and do more to improve outcomes for youth while protecting public safety.
There are no easy fixes for juvenile crime. But New York can find sensible solutions, and become a leader. The Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice has made recommendations that draw on what’s working in other states – to keep our communities safe while offering a “smart on crime” approach to juveniles accused of breaking the law.
Roderick Jenkins is a senior program officer at The New York Community Trust.