New York is one of only two states that prosecutes 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. But a broad-based coalition, made up of governmental and community groups, is hoping that getting the word out about the issue will lead to legislation raising the age that juveniles are put in the criminal justice system from 16 to 18.
North Carolina is the only other state in the United States that starts treating children 16 and older as adults in the criminal justice system. The problem with that, says Marsha Weissman, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives, is that these kids don't get funneled into developmentally appropriate programs, but are instead placed in facilities for adults. She emphasizes that kids accused and convicted of more serious crimes, like robbery or manslaughter, would still face jail time, only in a developmentally appropriate facility.
"What you would be looking at is a 15-and-a-half year old who might have committed manslaughter next to a 16-and-a-half year old who committed a manslaughter in a juvenile facility, as opposed to a 16-year-old who committed a manslaughter next to a 35-year-old who committed a manslaughter."
Weissman says most of these cases involve minor crimes, things like petty larceny or fighting. Getting a criminal record at an early age can change the course of someone's life.
"The collateral consequences means you can never put your past behavior behind you, no matter how rehabilitated you've been," Weissman said. "For 16- to 18-year-olds to have that saddled, to have that mistake haunt you for the rest of your life, is really counterproductive. Even for young people who don't go to prison, they have a criminal history record. That record affects their ability to go to college, get a job, get housing in some instances, for the rest of their lives."
Weissman is optimistic that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration will move ahead on changing the law. Legislation has been proposed on this issue before in New York state that hasn't made it through the legislature. Among the concerns are higher costs associated with these more intensive juvenile services.