Raise the Outrage

Cartoon by Melanie Zerah.

On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested on suspicion of robbery. The evidence against him was insufficient, including a witness with inconsistent accounts of the crime that allegedly took place, but Browder was already on probation for grand larceny and was held on a $3,000 bail which he could not afford as a result. 

Since 16-year-olds in New York State are tried as adults, Browder spent three years awaiting trial in Rikers Island, most of the time in solitary confinement. Finally, in 2013, his case was dismissed and he was released from custody, but his prison sentence had already taken its toll: two years after his release, Browder committed suicide at the age of 22.

Nearly 28,000 16 and 17-year-olds are arrested for mostly minor crimes annually, and face prosecution as adults in criminal court. Seventy-two percent of these crimes by minors are misdemeanors.

Having the age of adult prosecution set to 16 leaves little room for minors to learn from their mistakes. Putting a minor into the adult legal system can quite possibly lead them to a larger life of crime because of their time in detainment centers. 

The potential decision to raise the age of when a person can be prosecuted as an adult in the legal system is a topic of dissent among state legislators. Due to the failure of Gov. Cuomo and lawmakers to reach an agreement on a new state budget spending plan, the governor has requested a two-month extension on the decision to prevent a government shut-down. 

As of right now, New York is one of only two states that prosecute children that are 16 and 17-years-old. 

However, New York might soon be the only state with this starkly outdated policy as North Carolina may be passing bipartisan legislation to change their law to have minors dealt with in facilities such as family court.

While remnants of the “tough on crime” era of the 1980s encourage our judicial system to charge these minors as adults, results of multiple studies show that putting adolescents in jail is likely to cause irreparable effects that extend well into their adult lives.

We at The New Paltz Oracle believe that New York should raise the age of prosecution through the adult judicial system to 18-years-old. This will allow for leniency towards minors who commit crimes that fall under the misdemeanor category and lesser felonies. That being said, even if a minor were to commit a more severe offense, they should be disciplined through the juvenile system. 

Steps have already been taken by the state to show such leniency. In 2011 legislators passed a measure which allows for teenagers charged with sexting to take an eight-hour course and avoid placement on the sex offender registry. 

New York City is moving towards ending punitive segregation — the new preferred term for solitary confinement — for inmates 21 and under. Although Rikers Island is a harsh place of detainment for minors regardless, this is yet another step towards the consideration of a young person’s mental health. 

The brain is still developing at this point, and subjection to the hardships of adult facilities can cause serious mental damage to a minor. Greater susceptibility to PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies are all possible outcomes of a minor’s experience in prison. According to the Raise the Age Campaign, minors held in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those held in juvenile facilities. 

Due to the impressionability of the adolescent mind, the circulation of drugs and violence that pervade prison systems seems to impact young people more than once it is fully developed. In a study conducted by the United States Sentencing Commission, the rate at which young people return to jail was shown to be much higher than their older counterparts. 

Analyzing the costs of keeping offenders in an already overcrowded facility versus putting them through rehabilitation should be considered. According to The New York Times, the annual average taxpayer costs to house an inmate was $60,000 per prison inmate in New York. Studies by Project Return, an enterprise sponsored by Tulane University, show that the average cost of rehabilitation per inmate is $2,000. 

Investing money in the recovery of criminals is the responsibility of those who incarcerate them. It is more cost effective and produces more productive citizens after prison. Although this is true for all inmates, it is especially important for impressionable youth. 

While the nuanced topic of criminal punishment can not be solved with a simple approach, legislation must move towards rehabilitating our youth, not pushing them towards a lifestyle that reinforces their first criminal behaviors.