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Op-Ed: Time to Amend State’s Shameful Juvenile Justice Policy (Albany Times Union)

By Mishi Faruqee and Corey Stoughton

New York is at a crossroads.

Once at the forefront of sound, effective policies for juvenile justice, New York is now one of only two states (the other is North Carolina) that prosecutes all children as adults when they turn 16. Under federal law, New York must therefore put 16- and 17-year olds in adult prisons and jails instead of in juvenile facilities.

Reports of abuse of children in New York adult prisons have rightly drawn national shame. The U.S. Attorney General released a report calling the environment for adolescents at Rikers Island a “culture of violence.” Guards reportedly beat teenagers with radios, batons and broomsticks, and left them in solitary confinement for months at a time with lasting damage to their brain development. In Western New York, the Justice Department has been asked to launch an inquiry into New York’s infamous Attica prison, a grim place where a Correctional Association investigation found that nearly every person reported frequent brutal beatings by staff members – and where New York also houses 16-year-olds.

But right now is a historic opportunity for change: Governor Cuomo is pushing comprehensive reforms that would remove all children and youth from adult jails and prisons. By raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 from 16, New York will not only end its national shame but leapfrog our state into being a leader in promoting effective, humane and scientifically proven juvenile justice policies.

If the legislature approves Cuomo’s proposal, New York would join California as one of the first large states to fully remove youth from adult prisons. Moreover, the governor’s proposal would end the needless and costly incarceration of children for minor, non-violent misdemeanors, even in juvenile facilities. More than half of the children incarcerated in New York’s juvenile facilities are there for misdemeanor violations, and many are there merely for technical violations of probation rules instead of new offenses.

Juvenile justice reforms should go further than what the governor has proposed. We must ensure that young people’s mistakes do not stay on their records and haunt them for the rest of their lives. We should also grant judges full discretion to step down appropriate cases from criminal court to juvenile court.
But the proposed reforms are a considerable step forward. Nor can we afford to wait.

On any given day, there are hundreds of children in adult jails and prisons like Rikers Island and Attica across the state. They are the most vulnerable people there. Adolescents in adult prisons and jails are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted– often within the first 48 hours of incarceration. As a result of the trauma, they are five times more likely to commit suicide – in fact, suicide is the cause of three-out-of-four teens’ deaths in adult jails. More maddening is that this brutalization of our kids doesn’t serve a public safety purpose: Because their brains are still developing, kids respond well to rehabilitative programs in the juvenile justice system and, when they leave, are less likely to re-offend.

Given the historic opportunity to raise the age, New York could choose to go the way of Connecticut. In 2007, Connecticut raised the age while implementing comprehensive reforms of its juvenile justice system, including implementing smart policies to divert youth from court and from juvenile facilities. As a result, Connecticut has seen a dramatic reduction in youth incarceration as well as in youth crime, and saved taxpayers millions.

Or if New York fails to seize this rare moment, it can look to North Carolina as a warning of what could happen. 10 years ago, North Carolina formed a commission to study youth in the criminal justice system, and after over a year of comprehensive study, recommended the state raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. But the legislature failed to act, and today North Carolina remains at the bottom.

New York cannot follow North Carolina’s mistakes and let this opportunity to raise the age escape us. Every day our kids are suffering untold abuses in adult jails and prisons across the state.

Children in Rikers Island and Attica cannot wait another day, and neither can New York.

Mishi Faruqee is a juvenile justice policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union. Corey Stoughton is a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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