New York State’s Raise the Age legislation is an important opportunity to improve public safety, but it is just that – an opportunity. The success of Raise the Age depends on the efforts of every partner in the larger justice system, from police, to prosecutors, probation agencies, and the broad network of service providers who work with youth to keep them from becoming more deeply involved in the justice system.
Reducing delinquency and youth violence among justice-involved young people is a complicated business. Public safety is best protected when youth justice providers work with young people in their own communities, and when the efforts of courts and children’s services are coordinated with prevention agencies, schools, social services, neighborhood organizations, and faith-based groups. The most effective youth justice systems offer a broad menu of interventions that are managed collaboratively and across sectors. No single agency can do it all.
If placing more young people in criminal court does not advance crime reduction goals, the only argument against raising the age of criminal jurisdiction in New York would likely center on the cost and complexity of implementing a change in policy. This is not a sufficient justification to avoid addressing the potential harm being done to adolescents in the existing criminal court process.
Reducing youth crime is a complicated business, and I think we all know that it takes more than punishment. If it were possible to stop crime simply by adopting policies that sound tough and by advocating more use of secure confinement, we would have succeeded by now. That strategy has been tried enough times for us to know whether it works. Decades of research tell us that it does not work.
We have decades of research showing us that high-quality, early intervention actually saves money. I think we fail to intervene early and effectively with youthful offenders because we continue to base our policies and programs on the wrong theories. For some reason, we seem to believe the best way to change the behavior of a 14-year-old is to use fear and domination. We use the threat of punishment to instill fear and then a series of increasing restrictions to establish dominance over youth. Certainly, there are some young offenders for whom this is the only feasible approach, but fortunately that number is very small. For the vast majority of young people involved in crime, this is simply the wrong approach.
Legislative efforts related to juvenile crime typically focus on violence because crime issues are more compelling when they involve violence, but policies and programs to reduce violent crime may not help communities deal with less serious, nonviolent offenses. Efforts to reduce less serious offenses, however, are a sensible and cost-effective component in overall crime control. Not all shoplifters become armed robbers, but most violent criminals begin with petty offenses and adult criminals usually begin their law-breaking behavior as adolescents. Especially when juvenile violence is at historically low levels, policymakers should be redoubling their efforts to deal with young offenders who commit relatively minor, nonviolent crimes.