Young offenders need a way to right their wrongs and go on to lead productive lives

We report every week on local arrests because it is important to inform the public on the crime in our area as well as on how the police handle it.

We don’t necessarily like what we report. Fifteen years ago, in this space, we wrote that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be considered adults under the law. We report on the arrests of these youths because they are a matter of public record. It would be unfair to pick and choose.

Last Thursday, our reporter was in New Scotland Town Court when two 18-year-olds and two 17-year-olds were before the bench on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespass, accused of trashing their school last month.

“You guys are looking at a lawsuit,” the lawyer for one of the youths told our reporter.

It is not unusual for our paper to be threatened with lawsuits for reporting on crime. The week before, a 23-year-old said she’d sue us for reporting on her arrest, also a misdemeanor charge, for driving without insurance.

There is a difference between a 16-year-old and a 23-year-old. It has to do with brain development. Criminal defense attorneys have long argued that an adolescent’s brain is different from the brain of an adult or a child. Now there is research to prove it.

“Brain research — and even brain-imaging technology — has had an impact in changing people’s views,” said Elizabeth S. Scott, a Columbia professor and co-author of “Rethinking Juvenile Justice,” in a Columbia Law School Magazine article. “There’s something about colorful pictures of the brain that seems to impress people. When they can actually see the differences in adolescent brains, they can believe it.”

We looked at such magnetic resonance images, taken by Paul Thompson of the UCLA School of Medicine and published in Harvard Magazine. They showed human brain development between the ages of 5 and 20: Gray matter (shown in red) grew and then, with the onset of puberty, gradually decreased. Scientists say that cognitive abilities improve as gray matter thins, as the brain pares redundant connections and benefits from increases in the white matter that helps brain cells communicate.

Harvard neurologists Frances Jensen and David Urion have found that the brain is only about 80 percent developed in adolescents. The cortex, the brain’s largest part, is divided into lobes that mature from back to front. The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment.

“The idea is,” said Scott, “because of their immature brains, adolescents may be more likely to engage in reckless and sensation-seeking behavior — and to get involved in criminal activity.”

Scott studied the matter as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network. Its director, Dr. Lawrence Steinberg, reported, “The Network set out to find scientific evidence of whether juveniles were different enough from adults to merit different treatment by the courts. What we found was that young offenders are significantly unlike adults in ways that matter a great deal for effective treatment, appropriate punishment, and delinquency prevention. Society needs a system that understands kids’ capacities and limits, and that punishes them in developmentally appropriate ways.”

Most states recognize this. About half have juvenile justice systems. New York and North Carolina are the only two that prosecute and jail 16- and 17-year-olds like adults.

Juvenile justice systems, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, have rehabilitation and treatment at their core rather than solely punishment.  Also, limitations are placed on public access to juvenile records — so the names of 16- and 17-year-olds would not appear in our blotters column — because of the belief that juvenile offenders can be successfully rehabilitated and to avoid their unnecessary stigmatization.

Further, the juvenile justice system follows a psychological casework approach, taking into account a detailed assessment of the youth’s history in order to meet his or her specific needs.

In 2012, the United States Attorney General’s Task Force Report on Children Exposed to Violent Crime stated, “We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them as adults in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults, and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.”

Also in 2012, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state of New York, outlined in his “State of the Judiciary,” a plan to “change the way the justice system responds to 16- and 17-year-olds accused of non-violent crimes.” He estimated as many as 50,000 youths that age are arrested and prosecuted in New York, overwhelmingly for minor crimes.

“Our statute is a relic,” Lippman said, “the product of disagreement in the Legislature when the Family Court was created in 1962. The intent was always to study and revisit the issue. But here we are, 50 years later, with the ‘temporary’ fix still in place — to the detriment of our most precious asset, our children.”

He also said, “Study after study has confirmed that older adolescents who are prosecuted and convicted in criminal courts are more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and go on to commit serious crimes at a higher rate than youths who go through the family court system. Prosecuting adolescents charged with non-violent conduct in the criminal courts does not improve public safety or the quality of life in our communities.”

It’s important to note a juvenile justice system would not only improve the lives of adolescent offenders but would help society as a whole.

Lippman proposed a system that would put “first and foremost an emphasis on rehabilitation for adolescents, rather than incarceration,” stating, “The present punitive approach turns children into hardened criminals and must be changed if we are to ensure a meaningful future for kids who find themselves in the throes of the justice system.”

This March, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a Raise the Age campaign with proposals following recommendations made by a commission that had studied the subject.  The recommendations include raising the ages of juvenile jurisdiction for child and adult offenses, changing regulations governing arrest and police custody procedure, removing youth from adult jails, and expanding services to help offenders re-enter communities.

The $150 billion state budget the legislature passed on April 1 puts $135 million toward the “Raise the Age” campaign of which the lion’s share is to upgrade facilities so that young teens are held separately than adults. The governor is to introduce legislation to outline how local jurisdictions and courts are to bring about the changes.

The Raise the Age campaign, with a website at, hammers home the points, based on data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services and the United States Department of Justice, that youth housed in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, two times more likely to be injured by prison staff, and eight times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile facilities.

It also says that 96 percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds in New York prisons and jails are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

The site includes testimonials from youth who have been incarcerated with adults. Ismael Nazarlo, who was sent to Riker’s Island at 16, reports, “He hit me from this way, another one hit me from behind...That was after being there for two-and-a-half days,”

A woman who was arrested at 16 “for a fight with another girl,” was charged as an adult and convicted of a felony; she writes. “I worked hard to get my GED and Associate’s after, but was denied jobs over and over because of my felony. I was also denied rental assistance to get affordable housing for me and my daughter. I feel like I walk around with an ‘F’ for felony on my chest for a mistake I made when I was just 16.”

We wholeheartedly support a plan that would give young offenders a chance to right their wrongs and go on to lead productive lives.

In the meantime, the youth arrested on misdemeanor charges for trashing Voorheesville’s high school may soon be facing felony charges, according the assistant district attorney handling the case.

Similarly, three students in March were charged after a break-in at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo secondary school where doors and a cleaning machine were damaged and six iPads and food items were taken. Two of students are 16 and so were named by police along with their felony and misdemeanor charges. A third suspect was younger than 16, not named, and sent to the Capital District Juvenile Secure Detention Facility.

We in no way condone school vandalism — it is wrong, costly, and hurtful — but, as New York State is belated in the process of recognizing what brain research clearly shows, we urge the criminal justice system to take that into account as these cases proceed.

The punishment should fit the crime — and it should fit the mind of a young perpetrator.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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