In New York state, the idea that adults and teenagers don’t belong in the same prisons goes back a long, long way. In 1824, thanks to the efforts of Quaker reformers, our state legislators created one of the earliest versions of juvie, called the “House of Refuge.” It was meant for poor children and juvenile delinquents, in order to ensure they didn’t wind up in the same place as adult criminals.
Since then, though, our progress has slowed a bit: New York state has one of the lowest ages of “criminal responsibility” in the country: Sixteen-year-olds here are automatically tried as adults even for nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes. Only one other state, North Carolina, does the same. That means each year, thousands of New York teenagers end up in adult jails and prisons, doing adult time. A new report shows that’s increasingly uncommon elsewhere in the country; as it stands right now, we’re lagging behind Colorado, Arizona, and Texas in changing our juvenile offender laws. Yes, Texas.
The Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) released a new report yesterday showing that in the past eight years, 23 states have passed laws and policies to keep more teenagers in the juvenile justice system, where they won’t be sentenced as adults or serve their time among them. (That’s a policy the CFYJ supports; their stated mission is to end the practice of “trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system.”)
“You expect to see that in the more progressive states,” says Carmen Daughtery, CFYJ’s policy director. “However we’re seeing these reform efforts all over the country. I’m surprised not to see this happening in New York.”
New York started trying some juveniles as adults in 1978, after a 15-year-old named Willie Bosket murdered two people on a 3 train during an attempted robbery. He got only five years, served his time, got out, and was promptly re-arrested for assaulting a 72-year-old man. His second sentence was considerably longer; he’ll be eligible for parole in 2062.
These days, nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are tried as adults in New York each year, and state law says that offenders as young as 13 can be tried as adults for certain violent crimes. But most teens being tried as adults aren’t committing violent crimes; research from Columbia University’s School of Public Health shows that less than 5 percent of juveniles are arrested for crimes like murder, rape, and aggravated assault, while 75 percent are arrested for drug crimes, theft, and simple assault, and 20 percent are charged with burglary, theft, or arson. (Some of these statistics are also available at the U.S. Department of Justice’s website, or would be, if the damn thing weren’t still shut down.)
The nature of their offense aside, a lot of research shows that juveniles in adult prisons make for a bad mix. CFYJ’s studies have found that juveniles in adult jails are 36 times likelier to commit suicide. Some research has indicated they’re also at increased risk for rape, although a government survey earlier this year showed that may not be true. Nonetheless, this year states have to start complying with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which mandates that juveniles in adult facilities have to be kept out of “sight and sound” range of the adult offenders, or else monitored 24/7. (Jails also aren’t allowed to stick juveniles in solitary confinement to keep them out of the way of adult inmates, as many states do now.)
So what’s the solution?
Democratic lawmakers in New York have tried before to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. But they’ve faced push-back from Senate Republicans, who argue that violent offenders deserve to do some serious time, no matter how old they are. (In January, the Democrats will try again to raise the age; they’re only trying to get it raised for nonviolent crimes, recognizing that violent ones would be a bit of a stretch.)
“Kids as young as 13 end up in the adult system for things like stealing a bike or a bag of Doritos,” Daughtery says. “The collateral consequences are major. They’ll have lifelong adult convictions on their records. They won’t have access to educational loans or public assistance.” Some states allow teens offenders to expunge their records when they reach 18, she says, “but it varies state by state. The process can be confusing, it’s not accessible to a lot of people, and a lot of times there are attorney fees associated with these things. Not many public defenders will handle that.”
In New York, though, there’s one other problem: The juvenile justice system may not be much better, at least once a teen is incarcerated. In 2010, New York City’s Citizens Crime Commission said it had “reached a point of extreme crisis,” and noted that the U.S. Department of Justice had found “excessive use of force, and inadequate mental health care and treatment services” in several upstate youth prisons. A new pilot probation program called Close to Home keeps youthful offenders in community-based probation and residential facilities, instead of shipping them to the dangerous places upstate. But that, too, has had mixed success.
The full report from the Campaign for Youth Justice follows.