Legislation has been pushed forward to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 as part of New York State budget negotiations. It is argued that separating 16 and 17 year olds from criminals would lower recidivism rates and lead to shorter sentences for younger offenders.
New York State is currently one of only two states in the country that still has the age of criminal responsibility set at 16; North Carolina remains as the only other state to prosecute 16 and 17 year olds as adults.
“We’re out of step with the rest of the country,” said political science chair Jeff Miller. “It says something that 48 other states already have laws to this effect on the books and we don’t.”
The arguments for the passing of this legislation are well grounded in neuroscience, as most cognitive neuroscientists agree that an individual does not have a fully adult brain until the age of 25.
“Twenty-five is also the year where your car insurance goes down,” said psychology chair Glenn Geher. “So as far as the insurance companies who have their information based on data, they know that 25 is the real answer.”
According to Geher, the brain is a slowly developing organ and is about three pounds when it is fully developed. Because the birth canal is so small, the brain of a newborn is as large as it possibly can be without causing injury to the mother and expands over the course of decades.
The brain develops from front to back, leaving the frontal lobe as one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop. This is where executive function processes lie, including the ability to plan.
“As you get older you get a better sense of ‘all right, this is going to sound like a good idea but this is going happen if I do it, so I’m probably not going do it,’” Geher said. “It makes sense that that would relate to criminal behavior.”
Those arguing against the raising the age of criminal responsibility believe that it would hinder law enforcement efforts. One of the stipulations of the bill is that minors cannot be interviewed by the police without their parents present as they are not considered to be fully competent.
“I haven’t heard any arguments suggesting that 15, 16 and 17 year olds are as mentally competent as 18, 19 and 20 year olds, that seems to be a moot point as far as I can tell,” Miller said. “Nobody seems to be making that argument, at least not strongly, which is interesting there seems to be widespread agreement on the science that you’re not as mentally competent as you are 18 and older.”
Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright has come out in opposition to this legislation saying that it would remove discretion from district attorneys. According to Hudson Valley One at a press conference at the County Office Building in Kingston he warned that “sweeping changes to the state’s juvenile justice system could hinder the prosecution of violent crimes and endanger public safety.”
During the press conference, Carnright warned that the legislation proposed in Albany could undermine efforts to combat violent gangs and leave elected district attorneys accountable to voters shut out of proceedings that prioritize “the best needs of the child” over public safety and crime victims’ demands for justice, citing teen gang activity by MS13 on Long Island, according to Hudson Valley One.
“I can’t help but think that the people promoting this legislation are thinking about the neighbor’s kid who’s driving home in the family SUV, gets pulled over and the police find some pot in the glove compartment,” Carnright said, according to Hudson Valley One. “That’s not what we’re talking about here.”
At the press conference, he also cited the 2010 execution-style slaying of C.J. King on Cedar Street by Sex Money Murder gang member Trevor Mattis. Carnright pointed out that Mattis may not have been convicted if not for the interviews of two key witnesses who would have been covered by Family Court rules under the new law.
Miller said he sees mostly pros and that the law already acknowledges a lack of mental competency in young people given the legal drinking age and the age at which an individual can register to vote.
“What the arguments [against the legislation] really have to do with is efficacy, so you really have a dispute between more efficacious and efficient law enforcement and fairness, basic fairness,” Miller said. “Efficiency is not the goal necessarily in law enforcement; fairness and justice are the two primary considerations.”