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How to Reduce Crime: Stop Charging Children as Adults

"FOR the second year in a row, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has proposed raising the age of the state’s Family Court jurisdiction to 18 from 16. If that legislation fails again this year, it will leave New York and North Carolina as the only states where people age 16 and older can be tried as an adult and, if incarcerated, locked up in adult prisons and jails. (In New York, children as young as 13 must be tried in adult court for certain charges, like murder.)

Not only are these states trailing most of the country in this area, but they are also in danger of falling even further behind. Connecticut and Illinois — both of which recently raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18 (in 2012 and 2014, respectively) — are now considering raising the age to 21. In the 116-year history of the juvenile court, no United States system has ever gone above age 18, so two states considering it simultaneously is remarkable.

Why are they doing this?

Lawmakers are confronting questions over the effects and safety of the two systems. Would crime increase if more people were treated in juvenile court, where sentences are lighter? And, more parochially, would the courts and the juvenile facilities be overwhelmed? The answers from Illinois and Connecticut proved surprising.

Early in the 20th century, most states established juvenile courts, virtually every one restricting the new court’s age to youths under 16. A separate juvenile-justice system, which sought to rehabilitate and not just punish youthful offenders, was part of a movement by progressives to create a legally defined adolescence through the passage of child-labor and compulsory education laws and the creation of parks and open spaces. During the decades that followed, an overwhelming majority of states increased the court’s jurisdictional age, arguing that 16 was too young a demarcation point.

There has been a renewed effort recently to raise the age of family-court jurisdiction even further. In addition to the horrors of putting teenagers in adult prisons (where they are more prone to suicide, more likely to be sexually assaulted and less likely to succeed once they leave), a wave of new research has shown that young people are developmentally different from adults in impulsivity, future orientation, susceptibility to peer pressure and risk-taking, especially if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which kids in the juvenile justice system disproportionately do.

Initially, these campaigns were considered liberal, but now they’re increasingly bipartisan. When Connecticut raised its family court’s age limit, research found that 16-year-olds tried in family court were being rearrested at a rate almost 39 percent lower than youths their same age who had been previously tried as adults.

Connecticut now has its lowest number of juveniles in pretrial detention, its lowest population in juvenile correctional institutions, and the lowest number of young adult prisoners ages 18 to 21 in its adult prisons in a quarter-century — down 51 percent over the last six years.

Illinois has enjoyed similar successes. The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission concluded that its reforms enhanced public safety because adult convictions put youths at greater risk of re-offense by inhibiting education and employability. The commission also found that the juvenile justice system had gotten smaller now than it was before it included 17-year-olds. The population of Illinois’ juvenile institutions has declined by 43 percent since the reforms began.

Both systems built on the traditional strengths of the juvenile system, such as individualized sentences, programs to keep youths from being detained or incarcerated, and greater access to rehabilitation and counseling.

There is another compelling reason both to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and to rethink how readily we try juveniles as adults: the protection of the innocent. In early January, five boys, ages 14 through 18, were arrested in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and quickly charged with the rape of a girl on a playground, an incident that understandably caused outrage throughout the city. After more investigation, however, the prosecutor concluded that no sexual assault had taken place, and on Wednesday he dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning that charges cannot be reinstated.

But because the boys were charged as adults, their names were made public. This incident will be the first item that appears when future employers, classmates and schools do a Google search. A family court hearing, where names of the accused are rarely released, would have at least prevented their reputations from being smeared forever.

In the face of growing evidence about the benefits of juvenile courts, research into the neurological and psychological development of teenagers and the move by other jurisdictions to raise the juvenile court age, New York and North Carolina persist in trying and convicting 16-year-olds as adults. The current laws are archaic and unnecessarily punitive, and both states should raise the age of family court before they fall even further behind what science and common sense are telling us.

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