OP-ED: Reform Needed For Juvenile Justice System


A new day for juvenile justice reform in New York may finally be at hand.

A unique campaign of law enforcement officials, faith leaders and civil rights advocates has emerged to advocate on behalf of our young people. It’s called “Raise the Age,” and it seeks a long-overdue reform in Albany: raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility so that all children who are charged with a crime are treated as children, rather than thrown into the one-size-fits-all adult system.

New York is currently the only state other than North Carolina that still treats all 16- and 17-year olds as adults in criminal justice matters. In 2010 alone, 4,888 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in Queens, out of a total of nearly 50,000 across New York State. Approximately 73% of those Queens arrests were for misdemeanors. Yet all of them are treated as adults in the eyes of the system, and many of them end up incarcerated in adult jails and prisons, where they end up more likely to re-offend once they get out.

In Queens, we believe that young people who commit a crime need appropriate punishment – whether incarceration or treatment. Adult facilities, however, don’t give enough kids a second chance.

Working at Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities, I saw how important it was to provide youth with services tailored to them. Our programs were designed to have a real impact, and you could see the difference in our kids on a day-to-day basis.
When we make the right connection with a young person, we can turn their life around and put them on a path to become a productive, stable member of the community. That principle holds true in the criminal justice system, too. In fact, recent brain research shows that the young brain doesn’t finish developing until age 25 and is extremely open to change.

In adult prisons, youth are routinely exposed to traumatic sexual and physical violence, and are much more likely to develop depression and become suicidal. For those who make it out, it’s extremely difficult to return to school or get a steady job.

Rather than being tough on crime, putting youth in adult prisons is just dumb on crime. National studies show that when young offenders serve their sentences in adult facilities they are 34% more likely to be rearrested than those in juvenile facilities.

I’ve believed we should raise the age for some time, and now, given the Governor’s successes with juvenile justice reform, I feel the moment is right to move forward. We need to hold our young people accountable while offering them concrete opportunities for rehabilitation to become functional, employable and stable members of our communities.

Raising the Age will benefit our youth, reduce crime and recidivism, and make Queens and all the communities in our state safer for people of all ages and races. I hope the Governor and my fellow legislators will join me in making this a reality.