Expand Youth Justice Reforms to Cover Young Adults, says NY Report

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A new report calls on New York to further implement age-appropriate treatment of youth in the criminal justice system and exploit what it calls a “tremendous opportunity to implement an ambitious youth justice agenda” in the state.

While youth justice programs typically offer better access to rehabilitative services and support as opposed to adult sentences, minors across the country continue to be tried as adults, and those in a transitory adult stage could receive harsh sentences that leave a lasting negative impact, often leading to recidivism.

Although young adults ages 18 to 25 only make up 10 percent of the New York incarcerated population, they account for nearly a quarter of the arrests in the state, according to the report, jointly produced by Youth Represent and the Children’s Defense Fund-New York.

Although they are legally adults at 18, many youths are just beginning to explore adulthood and also are still experiencing prefrontal cortex development. This means they are more susceptible to impulsive behavior than a fully developed adult, but will still be prosecuted as if they were adults.

These “emerging adults” are at high risk for crime, illustrated by research which reflects that criminal behavior is highest in the late teen years and early 20s.

“18 is not the end of youth development, but rather a transitional point where young people continue to learn and grow,” write the report’s co-authors, Julia Davis and Kate Rubin.

According to the report, emerging adults also make up the “largest racial disparity of any incarcerated age group.”

Black youth aged 15 to 24 make up only 16 percent of New York’s population but 42 percent of those arrested and 55 percent of those who receive a prison sentence.

While policies in New York such as raising the age of adult jurisdiction from 18 to 21, being able to complete a high school diploma up until the age of 21, and staying on their parent’s insurance until 26 under the Affordable Care Act help emerging adults healthily transition into adult life, criminal processing isn’t the same.

When an 18-year-old is automatically tried as an adult, they risk facing the “full force of the criminal justice system, including adult sentencing, potential incarceration, and a lifelong permanent record,” the report says.

According to the report, 76 percent of people under the age of 24 who were released in 2005 were rearrested within three years. Youths’ involvement in the juvenile justice system also increases their chances of committing crime later in life by over 50 percent.

With rates of recidivism so high among those who are incarcerated during youth development, the report cited treatment programs as alternative ways to address youth crime that can have a much more positive impact.

The authors cited community based-diversion programs for youth offenders as a less costly and more effective way to deter youth from committing crime in the future.

One example: the Alternatives to the Court Experience (ACE) program in Washington D.C., which targets young people “post-arrest and pre-petition filing in court.” The youth offender agrees to work with a case manager, in cooperation with her family, to create a six-month plan of community service with local groups in return for avoiding further involvement in the justice system.

Data in the report showed that 51 percent of ACE program participants saw improvement in school attendance, and 81 percent reported no other legal involvement post-program.

Another program, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in King County, Washington, ensures that youths are directed towards case managers instead of the criminal system.

While programs like ACE and LEAD are generally directed towards offenders with “low-level delinquency,” both still actively work to reduce the amount of youth incarcerated or put through the criminal system.

The Raise the Age New York legislation passed by the New York State Assembly in 2017, which barred 16- and 17-year-olds from automatically being tried as adults and being held in adult prisons, is already seeing positive results, the report noted.

Arrests of 16-year-olds dropped by 41 percent in the first year that Raise the Age was implemented. The age of adult jurisdiction was raised to 17 in October 2018, and to 18 in October 2019.

Although programs like Raise the Age have resulted in progress, the report argues there are many other strategies now in place that are counterproductive.

New York’s “Juvenile Offender” law, for example, hurts youths by allowing children as young as 13 to be tried as an adult in court when they commit certain serious offenses. While sentences are typically less severe than that of an adult, their criminal record can be permanent—which often leads to problems getting a job, housing and numerous other impacts later in life.

The report also noted that young offender laws in New York fall short in comparison to other jurisdictions. These laws protect children and young adults from being tried as adults and instead divert them to service programs, alternative sentencing, and seal their records.

Young offender laws in Washington D.C. and Michigan allow those who are 24 or younger access to the youthful offender program without limit while New York’s youthful offender law only applies to youth under the age of 19; and once they use youthful offender status for a felony conviction, they can never use it again.

New York also allows those under young offender protection to still serve time in adult prison, although restricted to a maximum sentence of four years.

While the state of New York has implemented some reform that protects juvenile offenders, the report notes that a continued push to focus on age-appropriate sentencing and enforcing service-based diversion programs will have a more beneficial effect on the age group most vulnerable to criminal activity.

The report,” Expanding Youth Justice in New York,” can be downloaded here.

The report authors are Julia Davis, director of Youth Justice & Child Welfare at the Children’s Defense Fund-New York; and Kate Rubin, director of Policy & Strategic Initiatives at Youth Represent.

See also: The Doors Don’t Lock’ in DC Jail Program for Young Adults, The Crime Report, Oct. 5, 2020.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more discussion about juvenile justice challenges, sign up to attend Reforming Youth Justice: The Next Frontier, a series of interactive webinars scheduled between October 22 and November 12. Registration is limited. Please submit the registration form here.

 Emily Riley is a TCR Justice Reporting Intern.

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