08/24/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2012

A Child for All Purposes in New York, Except One

It's 2 a.m. and you haven't heard a word from your 16-year-old son. You call his cell phone for the 20th time and, again, it goes straight to voice mail. You check his room for clues as to where he could be, but find none. His walls are covered with pictures of young movie stars, his desk covered with CDs of artists you do not recognize, and his bed is still covered with the clothes you asked him to put away yesterday. There's plenty of evidence that a child lives in this room, but none telling you where he could be. It is only after a sleepless night that you learn that he was arrested. Your son did not call you out of embarrassment; the police were not required to notify you because, under New York's criminal law, a 16-year-old is considered an adult. A few days later, you come into court with your son. The judge informs you that, given your son's age, he is no longer treated as a juvenile and you are therefore not a party to this criminal proceeding. It is at that moment that you are confronted with a stark legal reality: a single poor decision by your teenage son has suddenly transformed your adolescent child, standing before the court, into an adult.

We have heard similar stories from so many parents as we travel across the state conducting education and information forums regarding New York's age of criminal responsibility. Participants are astonished to discover that New York is one of only two states in the entire nation that sets the age of criminal responsibility at 16 years. This means that parents have virtually no role in a legal process that may be life-altering for their children. This exclusion of parental input is aggravated by the fact that when cases of 16- and 17-year-olds are adjudicated in the adult court system, services that the youth likely needs to overcome issues that led to the arrest are not necessarily available. Participants at our forums are confounded when they learn that 16- and 17-year olds are detained in facilities designed for adults, and an arrest may result in lifetime criminalization.

The reality that a parent is not legally accorded a role when their adolescent becomes involved with the criminal justice system seems particularly incongruous since, in virtually all other aspects of the law, our legislature has deliberately and reasonably gone out of its way to recognize the diminished capacity of youth, so as to ensure that parents are involved in adolescents' decisions that carry long term consequences. For example, just recently our governor signed into law two bills: One that mandates minors obtain parental consent before receiving body piercing if they are under 18 years of age, and another that requires parental consent for indoor tanning for youth 17 years of age. This same law bans indoor tanning for youth younger than 16 years of age. These bills are consistent with so many other laws that recognize the differences between minors and adults. For example, if a 16-year-old applies for a driver's license in New York, that teenager must obtain a parent's signature. Similarly, adolescents must have a parent or guardian sign their work permit application if they are under eighteen years of age, and so on.

New York State has already acknowledged that parents sensibly should, and indeed, legally must, be involved in myriad decisions that carry life-long consequences for minors. If our state requires parental involvement for soaking up ultra-violet rays and piercing a belly button, then surely we can add an adult arrest -- and its life-long impact -- to this list.