Sixteen, in detention, and hundreds of miles from home. Not a recipe for rehabilitation.

A good idea is meaningless without follow-through.

For decades, we’ve felt the pain of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested as adults when they are not yet grown up. We’ve called, again and again, for New York to develop a justice system that follows what brain research clearly shows.

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 Columbia Law School Professor Elizabeth S. 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.”

We’re gratified that, starting on Oct. 1, the first phase of New York’s Raise the Age legislation took effect, meaning 16-year-olds can no longer be charged or tried or held as adults. In a year, the law will extend to 17-year-olds as well.

Ninety-six percent of the 16- and 17-year-olds in New York prisons and jails were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

And, once in the system, they weren’t safe. 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, according to data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services and the United States Department of Justice.

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.”

That same year, Jonathan Lippman, then the 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 were 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.”

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.”

That system is finally being put into place. Our reporter H. Rose Schneider took a deep dive into researching how Raise the Age legislation is being implemented across the state and reported on many worthwhile initiatives — to begin with, parents are to be notified of an adolescent’s arrest and to be involved when their youth is questioned.

This is a far cry from what happened a few years ago when a Guilderland youth who had just turned 16 the week before, had stolen a computer password so a friend could make fake bomb threats at Guilderland High School. On the autism spectrum, the 16-year-old was taken by police and questioned as an adult without his parents’ knowledge.

Sixteen-year-olds, and next year 17-year-olds, if charged with a misdemeanor will be processed as a juvenile delinquent in Family Court and will not have a permanent criminal record. This will allow the youth to make a fresh start.

Youths will be placed in settings appropriate for their age, rather than jail, so they can get services and treatments to avoid reoffending. Those charged with non-violent crimes will be diverted into community-based programs just like offenders 15 and younger. Those arrested on serious charges are to go to a youth part of criminal court and be placed not in jails but rather in secure detention facilities.

Schneider discovered a troubling problem, though: The state has just eight secure facilities for adolescent offenders who are awaiting trial and for those convicted and sentenced to less than a year. Four secure facilities are upstate — Schneider mapped them, in a line following the Thruway — and four are clustered downstate. There are none in the North Country.

“You’re getting all these other counties using these as distant detention facilities,” David Condliffe told Schneider of the eight secure facilities, like the one in Albany County. He’s the executive director of the advocacy group Center for Community Alternatives and a member of the state’s Raise the Age taskforce.

“So,” Condliffe went on, “you’ve got people from Binghamton being transported all the way down to Westchester when you’re arrested for the first time … Imagine you’re 16 years and you find yourself hundreds of miles from home … It adds trauma to trauma.”

The problem is further exacerbated because arrests have decreased in places like New York City, Condliffe said, since many urban areas are focused on alternatives to incarceration while arrests have increased in rural parts of the state.

“From the defense perspective we want our clients to be as close to home as possible, as close to a lawyer as possible so that they can have regular communication and aren’t being transported across the state for a court appearance,” said Susan Bryant, the acting director for the New York State Defenders’ Association. Beyond the defense perspective, though, is the difference that visits from parents, family members, and friends can make.

Even adult prisoners are less likely to commit crimes once they are released if they’ve stayed connected to their families and communities. They do better in prison and out of prision if they stay connected to their families.

A study done by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that the more individual visitors a prisoner had, the greater the reduction in the risk of reconviction, with each additional visitor reducing the risk of reconviction by 3 percent.

Social ties help offset the stigma of prison and help inmates with the practical challenges of integrating back into society.

“Indeed, with few exceptions, visitation provides the only opportunity for inmates to have direct contact with family, friends, and community members,” writes Joshua C. Cochran from the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“In doing so, it affords inmates some ability to preserve, develop, or sustain ties to social networks outside of prison, and to have sources of social capital on which to draw during and after incarceration.”

“The effect of family visits on prisoner well-being and future behavior is an important consideration in the development of prison policy,” says a review published two years ago, looking at research done since 1991 on the effects of prison visits. Researchers Karen De Claire and Louise Dixon found positive effects of prisoners receiving visits: Prison visits reduced depressive symptoms in women and adolescents, there was evidence of reduction in rule-breaking, and visits reduced recidivism and increased survival in the community.

A study published by the American Psychological Association, “The Effects of Visitation on Incarcerated Juvenile Offenders: How Contact with the Outside Impacts Adjustment on the Inside” by  Kathryn C. Monahan, Asha Goldweber, and Elizabeth Cauffman, noted, “Depression among incarcerated youth is a significant concern that has been related to substance abuse, self-harm, and in more extreme cases suicide/mortality.”

Their study of a diverse sample of 276 male adolescent offenders, aged 14 to 17, showed that youth who received visits from parents had “more rapid declines in depressive symptoms over time compared to youth who do not receive parental visits. Moreover, these effects are cumulative, such that the greater number of visits from parents, the greater the decrease in depressive symptoms. Importantly, the protective effect of receiving parental visits during incarceration exists regardless of the quality of the parent-adolescent relationship.”

Such visits are important for the health of the entire family, siblings included.

In short, it’s essential for counties across the state to find ways to keep their adolescent offenders close to home, perhaps with a shared system like Tompkins County is developing with other Southern Tier counties.

New York is finally on the right course to help its wayward youths find their way to being productive members of society, but the devil can be in the details. Society as a whole will benefit if offending youth can remain close to home.

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