When New York decided in 1962 that anyone older than 15 charged with a crime should be prosecuted as an adult, the law was supposed to be temporary. The State Legislature was to revisit the standard at some point and, with the benefit of research and experience, determine the most reasonable age of criminal responsibility.
Half a century later, New York and North Carolina are the only states that still view such youthful offenders as adults in criminal cases. Clearly, the time for review is now. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds should be treated as the juveniles they are. We now know that herding teenagers into adult courts and prisons hasn’t worked well and has undermined public safety.
Teenagers in adult prisons are at increased risk of violent or sexual assault, solitary confinement, mental health problems and suicide. And young people who’ve done time in the adult criminal justice system have about 34 percent more rearrests for felony crimes than those retained in the juvenile justice system. That’s no good for public safety. And yet in 2012, nearly 40,000 16- and 17-year-olds in the state had cases handled in adult criminal court. More than 2,700 of them were sentenced to adult jail or prison.
To prod the legislature to act, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has created a Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice and given it until Dec. 31 to develop a plan to raise the age of criminal responsibility — the age at which youths are treated as adults — and to handle the small number of young offenders who commit violent crimes.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in separate cases that the death penalty and life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to people younger than 18, noting they have a diminished moral culpability and are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults. New York should follow the court’s lead in recognizing that reality.