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Then There Were Two: It’s Time to Raise the Age

Op/Ed By Brigit Hurley,
Policy Analyst, The Children’s Agenda –


staff_Brigit-Hurley_headshotKalief Browder was 16 years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, a misdemeanor in New York State.

Moreover, he was innocent, but as is often the case with Black youth, that was irrelevant.

Kalief was also a child.

His brain was not fully developed. And, like all teens, he needed a chance to take some risks, and to learn from a few mistakes.

But, because he couldn’t pay $3,000 bail, he spent 1,000 days at Rikers Island, 800 of them in solitary confinement.

He was beaten and abused by inmates and guards on multiple occasions before the charges were dropped and he was released. The trauma left him broken and depressed, and two years later he committed suicide.

Kalief Browder’s experience is not an example of gaps in the criminal justice system – it is the criminal justice system.

Twenty-eight thousand 16- and 17-year old children across New York state are presently arrested and treated as adults each year.

In Monroe County, alone, 843 children were arrested in 2015.

However, 86 percent of such arrests are for misdemeanors, or non-violent felonies.

In addition, 70 percent of those charged are Black or Latino, and they account for 80 percent of those who are sentenced.

New York currently has the unwelcome distinction of being one of only 2 states—the other is North Carolina—in which 16- and 17-year olds are treated as adults for non-violent offenses, even though science tells us that our brains aren’t fully developed until age 25.

Because the adolescent brain is still developing, the character, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are highly receptive to change; adolescents respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior.

In fact, research shows that teens who are able to access support services while incarcerated are much less likely to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated after release, and they are more likely to go on to earn higher incomes, and live healthier lives.

However, too many New York adolescents don’t get that chance.

New York youth in adult prisons are:

  • twice as likely to be physically harmed by other inmates and staff while in prison;
  • five times more likely to be sexually assaulted;
  • 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility; and
  • 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested than teens treated as youth.

There is currently a proposal in the New York State legislature – “Raise the Age” – which would bring common-sense reform to our criminal justice system by raising the age at which youth are treated as adults, from ages 16 to 18.

Those who are convicted of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies would serve time, and receive education and other services, in age-appropriate facilities.

With this change, and with funding for effective interventions and diversion programs, youth can be held accountable for their actions while being guided along a pathway to a safe, healthy adulthood.

Voice your support for change!

Raise the age of criminal responsibility for youthful offenders of non-violent crimes. Click here to find out how to contact your state elected officials who will be making a decision very soon.

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