With just days to go before the state’s budget deadline, the coalition pushing for a higher age of criminal responsibility is trying to get the attention of lawmakers to convince them a change is needed.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo included legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility in his Executive Budget proposal and made criminal justice reform a major part of his State of the State Address.
New York and North Carolina are the only two states in the nation that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system.
According to the bill language, the legislation (S.1019/A.2774) would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 so that youth who are charged with a crime may be treated in a “more age appropriate” manner. The bill is being sponsored by Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, both Brooklyn Democrats.
On March 8, dozens of advocates filled the Million Dollar staircase in the Capitol to tell their stories about they and their families have been affected by the current juvenile justice system. Several lawmakers joined the advocates to call on their colleagues to pass the legislation this session.
According to its website, Raise the Age New York is a coalition that includes national and local advocates, youth, parents, law enforcement, legal organizations, faith leaders and unions who are fighting to increase public awareness about the issue.
This call for change stems from stories of injustice and poor treatment of young people of color — primarily young men — in the state’s criminal justice system.
Khalif Browder was a black male from the Bronx who was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was imprisoned on charges of second degree robbery, pending trial for three years. For two of those three years, Browder’s family says he was held in solitary confinement.
Shortly after being released from Rikers Island, Browder committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 22 because of the trauma he experienced in an adult prison, his family says. His story was even noticed President Barack Obama and other prominent politicians, who criticized the effects of solitary confinement, especially on young people who are still developing psychologically.
“We failed him for allegedly stealing a book bag, life was lost because of a book bag,” said Assemblyman Michael Blake, a Bronx Democrat.
Speakers at the event say that placing minors in the adult criminal justice system doesn’t work for them and doesn’t work for public safety, because children who are prosecuted as adults are statistically more likely to continue committing crimes in the future.
According to a study conducted by the National Juvenile Justice Network, youth held in adult facilities are 36 more times more likely to commit suicide and are at greater risk of sexual victimization.
“He had to suffer… be [tortured] by [the] Department of Correction. We want justice. [They] must take responsibility for my brother’s death,” said Akeem Browder, Khalif’s brother.
Mental health experts say that treating minors as adults in the criminal justice system doesn’t make sense, because research into brain development underscores that adolescents are in fact children and that the human brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 25.
As a result, the character, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are highly receptive to change. Also, their behavior is often impulsive and they lack the ability to focus on the consequences of behavior.
“We must speak at the voting booth as well. If not, we are part of the same system that works against us,” said Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Bronx Democrat.