Locking Up Teenagers With Adults Won’t Reduce Crime (NY Times)

March 10, 2022

By Gladys Carrión and Vincent Schiraldi

In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was jailed on New York’s notorious Rikers Island, accused of stealing a backpack, a charge he consistently denied. Bail was set at $3,000, a sum his family could not afford. He spent the next three years there awaiting his day in court, including two years in solitary confinement. He suffered abuse by corrections officers and inmates, and he attempted suicide. In 2013, the charges were dropped. Two years after his release, he committed suicide in his parents’ apartment in the Bronx.

Since his death and partly in his memory, efforts were finally successful in 2017 in reforming New York State’s draconian practice of trying all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and jailing them with adults. Lawmakers raised the age at which young people are treated as adults in the criminal justice system to 18 and, for most of them, also allowed their records to be sealed after 10 years free of crime.

But that reform may be in jeopardy following a recent spate of shootings in New York City, including the killing of two New York City police officers by a 47-year-old man.

Mayor Eric Adams recently proposed that 16- and 17-year-olds caught in possession of a gun be charged as adults if they don’t disclose who supplied them with the weapon. State Assemblyman Mike Cusick has gone a step further. He has introduced legislation that would amend state law to permit the prosecution as adults of 16- and 17-year-olds charged with possession of real or imitation guns or whose co-defendants possessed real or imitation guns in the commission of another crime. This would expose them to the possibility of lengthy prison sentences and allow some of them to be jailed with adults.

Rolling back New York’s reforms is a grievous mistake. During the 1990s, a time of high rates of violent crime, officials on both sides of the political aisle were vilifying “superpredators,” a catchphrase for young people who they believed were so irredeemable that treating them as minors didn’t make sense. Nearly every state made it easier to try juveniles as adults, which ended up roughly doubling the number of young people in adult facilities, according to research conducted by the Justice Department.

These policies were catastrophic in their impact.

Examining those get-tough approaches, researchers found that people under age 18 who were placed in adult facilities were much more likely to be sexually assaulted than older inmates. They were also five times as likely to kill themselves as young people in juvenile detention. And they were significantly more likely to commit a violent crime after their release.

There were also racial disparities in treatment. Nationally, Black youth were 8.6 times as likely to be incarcerated in adult facilities as their white counterparts.

There is a large body of research from New York and around the country showing that trying more young people in adult courts rather than in family courts is associated with more, not less, crime among young people.

Such research, combined with advocacy efforts by criminal reform groups throughout the country, has led to a remarkable shift away from “adultifying” the youth justice system. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have made it more difficult to try young people as adults or incarcerate them with adults. As a result, the number of youth tried as adults declined by 80 percent between 2001 and 2019.

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.

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