Even in relatively progressive New York, low marks for juvenile justice and corporal punishment
A new state-by-state analysis of how well America meets international standards on protecting its children found “alarming” results — a nation that “overwhelmingly” fails to protect its youngest residents from child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor and justice system abuse.
New York, considered progressive by American standards, was among states receiving failing grades on the national scorecard, released today by Human Rights Watch. The state received an “F” grade for its juvenile justice practices and a “D” for failing to protect children from corporal punishment.
“The report brings into sharp focus the areas where the U.S. is failing to uphold basic protections for children, as recognized by other nations and under international law,” said Stephanie Persson, a senior staff attorney at the nonprofit Children’s Rights.
In its assessment, Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, measured states against the standards set by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The 1989 treaty was designed to protect children from violence and exploitation, and to ensure their education and healthy development.
Since the treaty was adopted, 196 countries have signed on. The United States is the only UN member state not to ratify the convention — and appears to be falling far short of its standards.
The Human Rights Watch scoring system, which is based on state-specific policies, did not rate a single state with an “A” or “B” grade. Forty six states got “Ds” and “Fs,” with only New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota receiving a “C” ranking.
A “C” grade might not receive a glowing response from a parent if a student brought that home on their report card. But in the report released this week, Minnesota’s “C” grade, and its fifth-place national ranking, stood out. In Minnesota, corporal punishment is prohibited in public schools and penal institutions, but not in private schools. The minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction is a relatively low 10 years old, and no child younger than 14 can be tried as an adult.
New York ranked seventh in compliance with international standards on children’s rights, but still received low scores on its handling of children accused of crimes, who are disproportionately children of color.
In the beginning of 2020, at least 1,465 people nationwide were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenses committed as a child, according to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy and research group. Of the juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole, 62% are African American.
New York and 24 other states including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina permit juvenile offenders to serve life sentences.
“Fifty percent of states still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, despite the condemnation of this practice under international law and despite multiple Supreme Court decisions recognizing juveniles’ developmental immaturity in comparison to adults,” Persson said.
California is one of the few states that prohibits juvenile life without parole sentences, and has a minimum age of 16 and older for children to be transferred to adult court. Still, Human Rights Watch ranked that state in 30th place on all measures, with an overall grade of “D”.
California earned a relatively good “B” grade for its juvenile justice practices, however, bringing it closer in line than most states with international standards for children who commit crimes.
Human Rights Watch called out New York over its juvenile justice practices. In 2017, the state joined efforts nationwide to “Raise the Age” of criminal responsibility to age 18, in an effort to provide more youth the opportunity to receive rehabilitative services from the court system serving children and families.
Indeed, in 2020, the New York City Criminal Justice Agency found arrests of 17-year-olds dropped from 1,941 to 1,315. More than 80% of teens were released on their own recognizance after an initial hearing, with a majority of these youth cases being moved to Family Court, rather than the adult criminal courts.
According to the UN standards, the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction should be at least 14 years old, and nations are encouraged to boost it to age 16. Unlike the practices in New York and many other states, the international treaty also calls for no child to be tried in adult court, regardless of the criminal offense.
“The Raise the Age law was an important first step in reforming juvenile justice in New York State,” said Eamonn Scanlon, the education policy director at Children’s Agenda. But he added: “We must go further as a state to strengthen that law with well-funded alternative placements for children, and fewer exceptions for trying children as adults.”
Human Rights Watch also called New York out for its number of children subjected to corporal punishment. According to a social policy report, there are approximately 160,000 children subjected to such abuse in schools each year nationwide, and Black children and children with disabilities are significantly more likely to suffer.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires protection from “all forms of physical and mental violence.” New York is among the 50% of states that has prohibited corporal punishment in public schools, but it has still been allowed in private school settings, even those that receive public funds.
An investigation by The New York Times published Sunday into failing test scores and other educational abuses at Jewish private schools run by the Hasidic community recounted numerous incidents of abuse, including boys being beaten for failing to pay attention.
One of the students who recently graduated from the Yeshiva Beth Hillel of Williamsburg, told reporters he once saw a teacher knock a classmate to the ground and stomp him repeatedly. Another former student said a teacher had dragged him across the room, resulting in his head bleeding.
Numerous studies have found that corporal punishment is not only ineffective in correcting behavior can cause long-term emotional harm, deterring children’s ability to form positive and healthy family relationships, making it harder to learn, and increasing the likelihood of violent and criminal behavior in adulthood.
In New York, corporal punishment is barred in homes for foster youth and juvenile offenders.
But the state’s correctional facilities have a stark history of physical violence against detained youth. A 2009 federal investigation found that correctional staff “routinely used uncontrolled, unsafe applications of force,” which led to “an alarming number” of serious injuries including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth and spinal fractures.
Five years later, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, called on then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and his New York City Department of Corrections to address continuous violations of the constitutional rights of teenagers placed at Rikers Island, who were subjected to violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigation found “repeated use of excessive and unnecessary force by correction officers against adolescent inmates.” It also found correctional officers resorted to “headshots,” or excessive blows to teenagers’ heads.
According to international standards, corporal punishment is defined as any physical force, used and intended to cause pain and discomfort. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child further clarified that “corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence and states must take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to eliminate them.”