Imagine being arrested for shoplifting at age 16 – only to be charged and sent to prison with adults twice your age.
Sound like cruel and unusual punishment? And a vicious cycle that’s bad for public safety?
It does to us, too – although this is exactly what New York is doing.
Right now, the home of the Big Apple is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — that automatically treats all 16 and 17-year olds as adults for all crimes, regardless of the level of seriousness.
This is particularly devastating for an alarming number of minority youth. Of the almost 50,000 16 and 17-year olds arrested in New York each year, 70 percent of them are Black and Latino. The vast majority of these teens are often cuffed over a misdemeanor as small as being caught with a small bag of marijuana.
Alarmingly the system is also claiming our children younger and younger: each year more than 600 children aged 13 to 15 are prosecuted in adult criminal courts. That’s right, in a country where a kid can’t even legally watch an R-rated movie without an adult present, New York is forcing those children who make mistakes to bunk with hardened criminals doing time for armed robbery, murder and rape.
Having worked extensively with this already deeply vulnerable population – many of them teens with learning disabilities, histories of poverty, abuse and neglect – we can say with 100 percent certainty that adult prison is not the answer.
In addition to feeding the highly discriminatory school-to-prison pipeline — which destroys the hopes and dreams of generations to come — research shows that charging our children as adults is a worse “cure” than the disease itself.
Kids shuttled through a system designed for grown-ups, for instance, are 34 percent more likely to re-offend.
Disturbingly, the policy also sets thousands of teens a year– SOME OF THEM FIRST TIME OFFENDERS — up for soul-crushing abuse. For instance, kids in prisons are twice as likely to be victims of violence, face the highest risk of sexual assault and are nearly 50 percent more likely than an adult to be attacked with a weapon than kids in juvenile facilities. Unable to cope with all of this, many end up in solitary confinement, which only helps to shatter already fragile states of mind. It’s the reason why teen inmates are, tragically, 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult prison than in a juvenile facility.
But there is a solution to move us in the right direction: raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Don’t send children – children — in to do time in adult prisons.
Instead, hold them accountable in a system where they’re far more likely to receive an academic or vocational education; participate in treatment programs that address violent behavior; get treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems as well as medical care and, when necessary, be incarcerated with other youth instead of adults.
That is why, we are asking that Governor Cuomo and the state legislature continue the work they started to reform our youth justice system, and overhaul its current policy as it relates to our teens. They should Raise the Age and bring New York into line with 48 out of 50 states in this country. For more information and to get involved visit www.RaiseTheAgeNY.com or follow us on Twitter @RaiseTheAgeNY.
Marvin Bing is a New York based organizer focused on Juvenile Justice, Child Welfare, Racial profiling, and school justice issues. You can follow him on twitter @MarvinBing
Tamika Mallory is a Nationally recognized civil rights activist around Gun Violence, Women Issues, and Black Male achievement. You can follow her on twitter @TamikadMallory