Imagine your sixteen year-old son, brimming with the promise of youth, making a dumb mistake and getting into a fight at school. He gets dealt a bad hand when his mistake is labeled an assault, and, before you know it, his future is hijacked by the cruel adult criminal justice system. Life for your son, once filled with opportunity, becomes a daily fight against the overwhelming forces of recidivism and brutality that signify our prisons -- all for one mistake he made as a child.
Sadly, this is a reality in New York.
Under Governor Cuomo, New York has made noteworthy strides in reforming our criminal justice system. Cuomo has led by closing New York state prisons, instituting juvenile justice reforms to bring youth back to rehabilitate in their communities, and creating the Work for Success program to help the formerly incarcerated get jobs and avoid a lifetime of punishment. In his State of the State speech on Wednesday, the Governor can continue his leadership on this issue by seeking to change one of the most antiquated and shameful aspects of the system -- our failure to treat children as children.
New York is one of two states left in the United States that automatically prosecutes children as adults. Roughly 50,000 16 and 17-year-old children are tried as adults every year in defiance of science and wisdom. By immediately placing each and every one of these children at risk of incarceration in the adult prison system, we set them on a dangerous path that promises to destroy their lives and threaten public safety.
The reason that the justice system in every other state but New York and North Carolina treats adolescents as children is very simple: they are. Research has shown that the human brain doesn't complete its development until age 25. Adolescents' cognitive skills are still forming, and that leaves them impulsive and makes it difficult for them to consider the consequences of their actions. Critically, adolescents are highly responsive to external influences. If those influences are positive, impressionable young people will internalize that positivity. In the right environment, troubled children can change -- they can grow out of delinquent activities and learn to be responsible individuals. In the wrong environment, however, these kids will soak in negative experiences and can go on to become serious criminals.
The severe world of the adult criminal justice system takes children at a formative stage and molds them with abuse, isolation and cruelty. Children in adult prisons are twice as likely to report being beaten by prison staff than children placed in youth facilities where they belong. They're also almost 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and they face the highest risk of sexual assault. Kids in adult prisons are far more likely to be put in solitary confinement than their counterparts in the youth justice system -- a psychologically warping experience for young minds. The sad and predictable result is that many of these young people will commit more crimes -- and more serious crimes -- once they emerge from the harsh crucible of adult prisons. A staggering 80 percent of adolescents put through the adult justice system go on to reoffend. Even worse, these kids have around 34 percent more re-arrests for felonies than young people in the youth justice system. Instead of rehabilitating troubled kids, we're turning them into hardened criminals!
This injustice falls hardest on communities of color. Over 70 percent of the children arrested are black or Latino. 80 percent of the kids sentenced to prison are black and Latino.
It doesn't have to be this way. Governor Cuomo should continue to make strides in criminal justice reform by putting an end to an injustice that sets us apart from nearly every other state in the nation, and make 2014 the year we raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York.
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