Don’t let push come to shove for 16- and 17-year-old inmates

New York's Raise the Age law says 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn't be treated as adults while incarcerated.
New York’s Raise the Age law says 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn’t be treated as adults while incarcerated. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The new state law known as Raise the Age, which went into effect Oct. 1, recognizes that 16- and 17-year-olds shouldn’t be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. NYC officials knew that meant the young people must no longer be held at Rikers Island. But they also knew they had to go beyond just moving teens to the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx.

The move got off to a rocky start. There were several brawls at Horizon among inmates and fights between inmates and corrections officers. There were requests to allow guards to use pepper spray, something the state prohibits in juvenile facilities.

But pepper spray isn’t the answer. The shift to Horizon has to be matched with a shift in attitude. Horizon’s staff and corrections officers have to view the 16- and 17-year-olds as the adolescents they are. Horizon mustn’t become a mini-Rikers, and corrections officers mustn’t use the same tactics. Horizon’s policies also must be regularly reassessed to limit disruption and violence, and to address new challenges. That’s up to the Department of Correction and the Administration for Children’s Services, which oversee the facility.

So far, city officials say they’re developing age-appropriate programming, like movie nights, art programs and culinary classes, and behavioral incentives. Such efforts are important, and should be expanded. The staff has been trained in crisis management, and that, too, should continue, so staff and officers learn to work with the teens who’ve just arrived. In the last couple of weeks, changes have been made, like nailing down chairs and desks and frosting classroom windows to limit distractions. Although a pepper spray waiver was temporarily granted, the city still needs to establish rules before it can be used. Fortunately, some of those efforts appear to be working; the city reports a decline in violence in the last two weeks.

But none of those steps can equal the most important need: a change in attitude, especially among corrections officers who view force as the only answer. Most of the time, it doesn’t have to be. Find solutions to match the setting.