Niagara Gazette

April 14, 2014

CONFER: Don't go soft on teenage criminals

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Niagara Gazette

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“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated.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).

There is a little too much focus, most of it melodramatic in nature, on the supposed plight of these lawbreakers. What about the victims of their crimes?

There are approximately 50,000 arrests of 16- and 17-year olds in New York State annually. Think about that: 50,000 arrests. That’s for crimes for which they were caught — meaning there are countless multiples of those 50,000 affected by the actions of these teens who were arrested and their peers who weren’t. We aren’t talking a trivial amount of lawbreakers here.

Nor are the crimes themselves trivial in nature. These young adults commit adult crimes. They deal drugs. They burglarize homes and businesses. They assault people. They kill.

How soon we forget the three teens who just 7 years ago put the City of Niagara Falls into a frenzy when they conducted their own crime spree for kicks, robbing four, maybe five, taxi drivers and shooting two, killing one of them in the process. Or, what about the 17-year-old who, in cahoots with a 19-year-old, beat a Niagara Falls man to death with a golf club in 2010, the result of a drug deal gone bad?

Cuomo and Company would prefer to see degenerates like those have their hands slapped, live in a juvenile detention center or be returned to their families. None of those actions work. If they did, their families would have prevented them from ever even considering such abhorrent behavior in the first place.

It’s simple: If you commit adult crimes you need to face adult penalties and adult rehabilitation. At 16, you certainly know the boundaries between good and bad, legal and illegal. It’s been drilled into your mind by society — family, friends, schools, television and community – and it’s that same society to which you must answer for your transgressions.

If New York were to amend its penal code, what’s next? Scientists and psychologists have long said that the brain’s judgment-control and risk-assessment systems don’t fully mature until the mid-20s. Will that one day mean that criminals shouldn’t be tried as adults until they are 26?

Yes, it’s silly to think that, but it’s just as ridiculous to give thugs of any age a free pass.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.