Justice Perspective: Raise the age of juvenile criminals

Thu, May 28th 2015 02:00 pm
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

So often, it seems, our practices and our laws are put in place as a reaction to some movement of the moment, or some incident or series of events. Frequently, the long-term effects of such laws are not thoroughly thought out, and then it becomes very hard to remove or modify the law.

Think about the fact that each of us who travels has to remove our shoes now before we go through the scanner at the airport because there had been one incident of a "shoe bomber" on a commercial flight. A much more important example is our current policy in New York state of treating juveniles of 16 and 17 as adults in our criminal justice system.

Before the 19th century, children were considered to be small adults. Some as young as 7 could be tried in adult courts. During the 20th century, progressive thinking abandoned that practice and, in general, used the age of 18 as the age for treatment as adults.
Unfortunately, with examples of juvenile crime like the Columbine shootings and gang violence on the nightly news, in the early 1990s many states began "get tough" policies on crime and lowered the age at which juveniles were charged as adults. New York reduced the age to 16, where it stands today. This means that children of 16 and 17 can automatically be tried in adult court, and, if convicted, be sentenced to prison in a population with adults of all ages. New York is one of only two states to treat juveniles as adults - the other is North Carolina.

Psychological research and developmental science have shown that what we suspected all along is true - adolescents are more children than they are adults, and placing them in the adult criminal justice system doesn't work for them and it doesn't work for society. Studies have shown that young people who have been exposed to the adult prison system are not only more likely to reoffend, but are also less likely to go on to lead a life as a productive adult.

Instead of automatically treating adolescents as adults in the criminal justice system, an effective juvenile justice system is more in line not only with good results, but with what we believe as Catholics about the dignity of the individual. A just system should focus on being restorative rather than seeking retribution. A system that is respectful of juveniles should try to rehabilitate youth who come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Certainly public safety is a principal focus, but that also has to be balanced against the public responsibility to give offending youth opportunities for re-establishing their future.  Adolescents, because they are still developing, respond well to intervention and are capable of learning how to make responsible choices. Incarcerating them with a hardened, adult prison population reduces their chances to change considerably.

Gov. Cuomo has put more than $150 million in the state budget that just passed to rectify this situation, but the hard work still needs to be done. Legislation has to be put together that will raise the age of jurisdiction to 18, move cases for juveniles to Family Court and expand services for offending youth.

The New York bishops have stated, "Protecting public safety requires upholding the sanctity and dignity of every human life and this requires a commitment to restorative and rehabilitative practices within the juvenile justice system."

Raise the age.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.   

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