Legal Aid Urges Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility, Says a Comprehensive Overhaul Needed to Correct Long-Standing Injustice

As New York City Council members held a hearing Thursday on raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York State, The Legal Aid Society released a statement emphasizing the need to stop treating 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the eyes of the law.

“New York State is unfortunately one of two lone states that inhumanely treats 16 and 17 year olds as adults before the law. Research and science continue to prove that adolescents are not fully developed at this age and prosecuting them as adults only fosters recidivism and counters efforts to improve public safety. The Legislature and the Governor have expressed a desire to make raising the age reform a priority this session but only a comprehensive overhaul addressing all flaws in the system will correct this long-standing injustice. We hope the City Council will join our ranks and help us work towards the specific outcome that New Yorkers truly need.”

The Society also submitted testimony at the hearing, held by City Council’s Committee on Juvenile Justice and its Committee on Courts and Legal Services.

“We have waited too long, we need to do the right thing for all adolescents starting now,” urged Lisa Freeman, Director of the Juvenile Rights Practice’s Special Litigation and Law Reform Unit, Nancy Ginsburg, Director of the Criminal Defense Practice’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project and Sandeep Kandhari, Director of the Community Justice Unit.

The trio wrote it was “short-sighted” and “inhumane” to prosecute 16- and 17-year olds as adults and incarcerate them with adults, adding that, for the most part, these youths – disproportionately children of color in poor neighborhoods – are accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.

The testimony said it was important to consider a recent state juvenile justice reform putting adjudicated juvenile delinquents in facilities near their New York City families, where they receive treatment, confinement and supervision. The testimony said the “Close to Home” reforms showed “treating children like children works.” Moreover, the reforms demonstrated state and city officials were able to carry out a systemic change viewed as “complicated and cumbersome.”

Every parent and most laws and regulations view 16- and 17-year-olds as adolescents, said the testimony. As a result, “every person should be appalled at what happens to a 16 or 17 year old child when incarcerated with adults; every person should understand the level of distress and damage that occurs when children are processed, prosecuted and placed as if they were adults. The only people who may not feel this way are people whose adolescents have not experienced this circumstance, who have not found themselves in criminal court, or who have not watched their children suffer in Rikers or adult upstate prisons.”