An important part of the mission of the New York State Psychiatric Association is its work to assure the incorporation of good, up to date science into public policy as well as its work to protect vulnerable populations. NYSPA’s advocacy for raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York State from 16 to 18 years of age as part of a complex, broader package of juvenile justice reforms aligns with both goals while enhancing the safety of citizens. Indeed, public safety may be improved if what happens in NYS is found to be consistent with the experience in other states.
For the last two years Governor Andrew Cuomo has submitted legislation the goal of which is to phase in a rise in the age of juvenile jurisdiction to age 18 which would bring our state into line with other states. To date, the legislation has not passed; as a result New York continues to be the only state aside from North Carolina, to retain 16 as the age above which youth are tried in adult court rather than in Family Court where access to an array of supportive, rehabilitative services is integral to the actions which can be set in motion by the court. While the legislation has been met by some concerns, many welcome it as an opportunity for New York to be smart on crime, including a broad coalition of organizations representing youth, families as well as members from the law enforcement and district attorney community and unions.
To address the fear that reform would likely lead to increased crime, it is important to point out that violent crime committed by juveniles would continue to originate in criminal court. Recognizing the developmental differences between youth and adults, the Governor’s bill would establish “Youth Parts” in criminal superior courts assuring that adolescents who commit the most violent crimes would be handled in adult courts by judges with special training meant to prepare them to address the special issues arising when dealing with offenders in this age group.
Data from Connecticut and Illinois, 2 states which recently enacted comparable changes to their statutes, reveal that recidivism and crime rates can be lowered when non-violent young offenders are removed from the adult justice system and receive mental health and other needed services without adversely affecting public safety. Furthermore, data demonstrate the salutary impact on the young non-violent offenders themselves of not being incarcerated in adult facilities. Beyond reduced recidivism researchers found lower rates of suicide, a lesser likelihood of their being sexually assaulted and a better chance that they will do better after release.
The call for reform is based in the scientific findings of both contemporary neurodevelopmental psychology and behavioral research. Researchers over recent decades have better delineated the evolution during adolescence of the developmental reward, pleasure neural pathways of the brain and the implications of those evolving changes on the behavior of those between 15 and 21 years of age. The brain changes which occur over a period of years may be both sequential and simultaneous. They manifest themselves in changes various anatomic regions and pathways in the brain with consequences on its systems of reward and neurointegration. The result at different developmental points is adolescent hypersensitivity to pleasure seeking experiences, especially when in the company of their contemporaries, and only the gradual ascent of more rational decision making along with better affective modulation more characteristic of adults as the process of maturation unfolds. In this context, it is noteworthy that the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions beginning with Roper v. Simmons in 2005, has recognized that youth should be viewed as being less legally culpable than adults as well as being more amenable to rehabilitation.
Absent an agreement to raise the age during the 2015 Legislative Session, the Governor, issued Executive Order No. 150 as an interim measure until the passage of legislation, which directs the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in collaboration with the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), Office of Mental Health (OMH) and Office of General Services (OGS), to implement the plan to relocate most minors from adult prisons to juvenile facilities in NYS. In anticipation of passing raise the age legislation, the Governor’s 2016 budget seeks an appropriation of $111 million as part of a 5-year financial plan. Of that amount $110 million would be appropriated to OCFS for the purpose of increasing capacity through the upgrade and renovation of existing facilities and the design of new facilities. $ 1 million is designated to OMH for program design and staffing for the newly expanded facilities. Relocation of juveniles is to start in August, 2016.
The expansion of the Youthful Offender Status, the provisions to allow court proceedings and conviction to be sealed after a certain period of time in certain cases are two additional important aspects of the “Raise the Age” legislation that are noteworthy; they highlight the increasing recognition at all levels of policymaking that youth can be rehabilitated and deserve a second chance to learn from a mistake made during their formative years rather than being saddled with a record which limits their future opportunities for higher education, including financial aid assistance, as well as employment.
In conclusion, NYSPA, along with many other interested groups such as Families Together, is advocating for a change in NYS law that would recognize the advances in the scientific understanding of developmental neuropsychology of the brain by “raising the age” of criminal responsibility for non-violent youth offenders in NYS and at the same time offer appropriate protections to youth who, not having reached mature adulthood, deserve to have their treatment by our legal system mitigated as a result of that new knowledge. NYSPA hopes that during the 2016 Legislative Session a bill can be crafted which will pass both chambers, be signed into law by the Governor and will serve the youth of NYS well while also protecting public safety.
Dr. Perlman is the Chair, Committee on Legislation, New York State Psychiatric Association and Mr. Papapetros is the Coordinator of Research and Communications at Richard Gallo Associates.