And when young people are tried in family courts, it is no walk in the park. In the first year following the phase-in of New York’s reforms, 16-year-olds charged in Family Court were detained more frequently than youth the same age charged in adult court.
But elected officials and law enforcement agencies are under pressure in New York and elsewhere to crack down. In promoting his own get-tough plan, Mayor Adams has argued that there is a higher percentage of young people under 18 being arrested on gun possession charges today than six years ago. But let’s put that in context. Youth arrests overall in New York City plummeted to 5,846 in 2020 from 23,191 in 2015. Of those arrests, in 2020, 470 were for dangerous weapons; in 2015, the number was 1,204. So while the percentage rose almost three points by 2020, the actual number of arrests fell by 734 compared with 2015.
In fact, in the 18 months between New York’s reforms taking full effect and the advent of the pandemic, shootings in New York City remained the lowest they had been in decades, even as incarceration of 16- and 17-year-olds declined, according to research done by supporters of the reforms. It was only after months of lockdowns and school closings that gun violence among both adults and young people rose in New York City, as it did throughout the country. Prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds in Family Court was not the reason violence escalated.
As in the “superpredator” era, some politicians are leaping to facile conclusions and taking it out on an easy target — young people of color. As youth corrections professionals, we believe that what we need to do is get creative and reconnect young people with supportive institutions to help them weather the storm we’re all in.
Research on New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program found that youth randomly assigned to the program had felony conviction rates 38 percent lower than those who did not participate, suggesting that Mayor Adams is on the right track by expanding this endeavor. Another innovative effort, New York’s Common Justice program, offers some offenders ages 16 to 26 convicted of violent crimes alternatives to jail, like counseling and reconciliation efforts between offenders and victims. From 2009 to 2018, fewer than 6 percent of participants were terminated from the program for committing a new crime. There are similar successes across the country.
Simplistic, knee-jerk solutions like prosecuting more 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult court system with the threat of permanent criminal records and lengthy time behind bars are not the answer to the crime problem. We need to rehabilitate young offenders, not shackle them with adult criminal penalties that will create lifelong barriers to work and school. We’ve seen the carnage that caused and should not revisit it.
Gladys Carrión is a former commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. Vincent Schiraldi is a former commissioner of New York City’s Departments of Correction and Probation, and was a director of Washington, D.C.’s youth corrections agency. Both are senior fellows at the Columbia Justice Lab, which is developing new approaches to criminal justice.