Niagara Gazette

Opinion

April 14, 2014

CONFER: Don't go soft on teenage criminals

Niagara Gazette — New York is one of two states – North Carolina being the other – that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in misdemeanor and felony cases. Other states do so only on a conditional basis at the whim of the presiding judge. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been adamantly opposed to this. In his January State of the State address he briefly touched on the matter:

“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated. Under New York state law, 16- and 17-year olds can be tried and charged as adults … It’s not right, it’s not fair – we must raise the age. Let’s form a commission on youth public safety and justice and let’s get it done this year.”

Just a couple of weeks later in his mass e-mail to constituents honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., he called this a “civil rights crisis” and said that “changing this practice has to be a priority in the legislative session.”

So far, we have yet to see a commission and it hasn’t been a legislative priority, but now, with the budget rigmarole out of the way, it will be certain to take center stage before the session concludes in two months. Some of the chess pieces are already in play: Assembly bill A.3668 and Senate bill S.1409, sponsored by Joe Lentol and Valmanette Montgomery respectively, would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18.

Proponents of the legislation say it is necessary for the betterment of youthful offenders because a kinder, gentler approach will prevent travesties that are alleged outcomes of incarcerating teenagers. Among those they cite are recidivism (teens will become trained, hardened criminals when living in close quarters with adult criminals), emotional damage (juveniles placed into solitary confinement emerge with emotional problems), suicide (the suicide rate for juveniles in adult jails is 7.7 times higher than for those housed in juvenile detention centers), and sexual abuse (a juvenile offender is at greater risk of sexual abuse if he or she is the youngest inmate on the block).

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