More Justice for Juveniles
October 2, 2011
From the very public pinnacles of justice to the more obscure corridors of academia, the way our society prosecutes and metes out punishment for juveniles is under harsh re-examination. That’s all for the good. What’s less clear is the best way to fix a system that isn’t working.
In New York, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has understandably had quite enough with treating defendants as young as 16 as criminals, trying them in the same courts as adults and sending them to their own prisons, scant hopes of rehabilitation and all. He makes a compelling case for handing all but the most violent and serious cases in Family Court.
As he noted in a speech last month to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, scientific research has shown that adolescents’ brains are not fully matured, limiting their ability to make reasoned judgments and weigh consequences.
Change means no longer standing out so baldly as one of just one or two states that still think 16 is a sufficient age for the prosecution and incarceration that adults face.
It requires persuading the Legislature and governor to make reforms that are essential yet politically difficult. Judge Lippman should continue to press his case, armed with the data and recommendations in a report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “Resolution, Reinvestment, and Realignment: Three Strategies for Changing Juvenile Justice.”
Realignment emerges as the best hope for permanent change, more so than, for example, reinvesting and redistributing resources.
Moving most juvenile cases from criminal court to Family Court constitutes precisely that sort of permanent change, just as it did in successful overhauls of adolescent justice in California and Wayne County, Mich. The goal is to reduce, even eliminate, state-run confinement and replace it with local services. That’s consistent with Judge Lippman’s determination to reorganize the vast network of state and municipal agencies in New York’s criminal justice system.
The John Jay College report calls realignment “surprisingly feasible” — just realigning juvenile justice in New York City, it found, would allow the state to transfer responsibility for 60 percent of all committed juveniles to local jurisdictions. The figure rises to 90 percent when Rochester and Long Island are added.
Lawmakers should remember that when Judge Lippman pushes for a different kind of juvenile justice in next year’s legislative session.
The 45,873 youths ages 16 and 17 arrested last year in New York are more than enough reason to try a new and different tack.