Two years ago this month, New York City moved all 16- and 17-year-olds off the Rikers Island prison complex, for good. But young adults ages 18 through 20 stayed behind in the city’s notorious lockup – a place so reviled by human rights advocates that Britain’s Guardian newspaper once declared Rikers a “byword for prison brutality.”
Teens who by law still can’t drink or buy cigarettes in New York state still have their cases heard in the adult court system and can find themselves circulating among older, more hardened inmates on the violent, slug-shaped, 400-acre spit on the East River.
Those circumstances have led two leading supporters of the Raise the Age reform law that rescued the under-18s from Rikers Island and all other adult jails and prisons to set their sights on reforming justice for other so-called “emerging adults” – 18- to 25-year-olds.
“Youth justice in New York requires a new framework – one that recognizes that emerging adults are a distinct population with unique needs and opportunities,” stated Julia Davis, a director at the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, and director at Youth Represent Kate Rubin, whose legal aid group represents young people confronting employment, housing, education or child support challenges after facing criminal charges.
A proposal released last week authored by Davis and Rubin calls for the creation of a new “youth adult status” for 18- to 25-year-0lds in New York. Similar to “juvenile status,” the new designation could provide additional alternatives to incarceration, limit maximum prison sentences and allow more criminal cases to be sealed. The state might also consider a change recently made in Vermont, “raising the age” of family court jurisdiction above the age of 18, the pair recommend in “Expanding Youth Justice in New York.”
The 32-page document posted online highlights reform efforts nationwide as well as the latest in brain science and its implications for policy and legislation.
Davis said in an interview that the paper’s goal was “to lay out ideas for the youth justice community in New York to consider and react to as we think about the next wave of advocacy.”
Statewide and nationally, authorities have embraced neuroscience findings that youth remain biologically prone to impulsivity and short-term thinking – yet simultaneously vulnerable to traumatization through their mid 20s.
Against that backdrop, in 2017 Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Raise the Age reform law, rerouting 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system and into the state’s rehabilitation-oriented family courts and more home-like juvenile detention facilities.
Now, with a months-long national protest movement over abusive policing and racial injustice continuing to mount pressure on longstanding practice, there are new calls for a rethinking of how to handle the slightly older set – young adults ages 18 through 25 accused of and engaged in criminal activity.
Arrests of youth ages 18 to 24 declined by 41% between 2013 and 2018 in New York. But still there were 94,000 such arrests in 2018. That number is one-quarter of all arrests in the state, although 18-to 24-year-olds only account for one-tenth of the population.
So should a 19-year-old face “the full force of the criminal justice system, including adult sentencing, potential incarceration, and a lifelong permanent record,” in addition to mandatory court fees, as they do now? In their recent paper, Davis and Rubin state the answer is no.
The authors note that other states are far ahead of New York in making such changes. California until recently permitted some youth convicted in adult court who are younger than 20 to serve time in juvenile facilities, if their sentence ends before their 25th birthday – that program was suspended this year as the state prepares to close its state juvenile facilities – and similar reforms were also passed in Oregon and Washington within the last four years. Other states including Maine, Connecticut, Texas and Mississippi have also begun sending some of their “emerging adults” to age-specific facilities.
The recently released report on New York justice also recommends continued reforms to how juveniles are treated, including raising the minimum age of arrest from its current 7.
The authors plan to meet with youth-led groups to hear their priorities before fleshing out a clearer agenda and knitting together allies for a legislative push in Albany.
“For a lot of people in New York, folks have been interested in what to do next after Raise the Age,” Davis said. “This is an attempt to help the conversation move forward towards concrete ideas that can help build the same coalition, the same momentum, interest, and focus that got Raise the Age done.”
Note: This article was updated on Friday, Oct. 16.