In the wake of new guidance on federal drug prosecutions issued by the Justice Department last week, some observers questioned whether it heralded the end of bipartisan criminal justice reform.
Yet Washington only makes up part of the criminal justice story. State jails and state prisons hold the majority of people incarcerated in America. And just last month New York offered hope, delivering on a major statewide reform.
Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass legislation that gradually raises the age by which many minors are sent to adult criminal court. It's not perfect, but the move is major step toward a fairer and safer New York — one where children can fulfill their full potential in society.
New York was one of just two states to send all 16-year-olds to the same courts and jails that process adults. Nearly 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested in our state each year, disproportionately and predominantly black and Latino children. Roughly three in four are accused only of misdemeanors or other minor crimes.
Under the old system, which remains in place until 2019, most are prosecuted as adults in criminal courts. The new system establishes a separate track to handle juvenile cases, a “youth part” of our court system.
Children charged with misdemeanors are sent to Family Court. Those charged with more serious crimes face a more complicated path, but they could go to Family Court too unless their charges involve certain circumstances.
This change dramatically improves the chances that many of these children will avoid future jail time. Studies show that young people held in an adult criminal system are 34% more likely than those in the juvenile justice system to be arrested again for violent crimes or other offenses. Roughly 80% of teens released from adult prisons wind up incarcerated again, often for much more serious offenses than what landed them in jail the first time.
By sending minors to adult jails and adult courts, New York had not only created a revolving door, but it had increased the likelihood young people would return to jail for a more serious offense.
The reforms also ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds awaiting hearings will be held in a juvenile facility, not an adult jail. Many members of the law enforcement community have had concerns about mixing these populations. This will dramatically reduce the likelihood that children are victimized by adults. Sadly, young people in adult jails face much higher risks of being attacked violently, including sexual assaults.
Many emerge with much deeper emotional issues. The tragedy of Kalief Browder provides a poignant example. He was accused of stealing a backpack at age 16 and spent three years at Rikers, where he suffered brutal abuse. He maintained his innocence and eventually the charges against him were dropped. But the damage from the torture he suffered in adult jail was done. He killed himself two years after he was released. Youth in an adult facility are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those held in a juvenile facility.
New York’s reform is a strong move, but there is more that can be done. Juveniles in the system also need better access to services and support, and there are still too many ways under the new law for children to end up serving adult time.
Nonetheless, children in New York will now be addressed by a fairer system, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have a guiding example to draw from. We hope the move establishes momentum for further criminal justice reform breakthroughs in the coming years.
Observers should remember that despite the headlines that come out of Washington, at the state and local levels bipartisan success stories are right-sizing the criminal justice system.
Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Levin is the policy director of Right on Crime.