"Raise the Age" Marches on the Capital
Buses across the state departed as early as 5 a.m. on March 7th to shuttle “Raise the Age” advocates to Lobby Day in Albany. A single mother boarded in solidarity with her son, who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16-years-old. This broken family is not alone, as thousands of youth pass through the New York State adult Criminal Justice System each year. We are one of only two states in the nation to prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as full adults, to the detriment of community health and to the benefit of the “pipeline” prison system. Mass Criminalization is an obstacle to the ACTS mission of a just and equitable community. However, last week, Mass Criminalization suffered a loss thanks to our efforts and those of our allies.
As the buses arrived at the State Capital the single mother was joined by 250 others dedicated to “Raise the Age,” a public awareness campaign organized by the advocacy group of the same name. ACTS marched on March 7th with members of the Criminal Justice Task Force and All Saints Parish. We were joined by ACTS of Rochester, NOAH, Voice Buffalo, and, of course, the Raise the Age organization, who tweeted “NOT ANOTHER YEAR! Time for the New York Senate to pass ‘Raise the Age.’” This rally-cry has found support from both Democratic and Republican elected officials, attorneys, child advocates, labor unions, law enforcement professionals, editorial boards, medical professionals, and members of the clergy. Faced with this mounting consensus, Governor Cuomo has proposed “Raise the Age” legislation in the 2017-18 budget. It was a victory for our youth, and a hallmark of evaporating apathy toward the outdated Criminal Justice System of New York.
The New York State Criminal Justice system once violated human rights by placing youth in solitary confinement for indefinite periods, and has begun to change this in the face of stalwart pressure. Likewise, “Raise the Age” legislation has passed in the New York State Assembly. Whether the legislation will also pass in the New York State Senate is still unseen, but if we ease our pressure on elected officials now it may never come to fruition. As a husband and wife from All Saints Parish said at Lobby Day, “a state of complacency is dangerous, especially now!” To realize a “Beloved Syracuse,” we must educate ourselves on the issue of Mass Criminalization and its systemic causes, and insist on increasing the age of adult criminal responsibility.
This objective is vital in creating an equitable community, as Mass Criminalization disproportionately affects people of color. Over 70% of youth processed through the adult criminal justice system are Black or Latino/a. This contributes to the oppression of youth and minority communities through one unjust condition, which we are fighting together along with “Raise the Age.” If we continue to work together for equity, we will see a transformed Syracuse. As Senator Jesse Hamilton said at the Albany Lobby Day, “This is the year that we are going to raise the age…this country is criminalizing our youth for being youthful.”
For a brief moment, however, we can celebrate a successful dialogue in Albany. When one member of ACTS was asked for his reflection on Lobby Day, he replied “There was a sense of urgency and enthusiasm that made me feel we are truly on the precipice of change.”
ACTS President Dave Babcock is thrilled to announce that NY State Senator John DeFrancisco has pledged support for "Raise the Age" Legislation.
Along with Senator DeFrancisco are several other elected officials who have pledged support. Please call or write to each to thank them for their support, and insist on the importance of "Raise the Age" to our communities. Click each elected person's name to visit their official webpage, wherein lies their phone number and contact info.
Or follow this link to a site where you may find your district's elected official with ease.
Understanding the Issue: Arm Yourself with Knowledge
The goal of “Raise the Age” is to increase the age of criminal responsibility in New York State from 16 to 18-years-old. ACTS has made “Raise the Age” a priority due to the correlation between the prosecution of youth as adults and Mass Criminalization in our country. Our incarceration rate is the 2nd highest in the world, outdone only by the small island nation of Seychelles. Unlike Seychelles though, the United States has a total population of 318 million, with a prison population greater than 2,220,000 (in 2013). Even China, with a total population of 1.357 billion, had only 1.5 million prisoners. These numbers indicate systemic Mass Criminalization, in which the issue lies not in crime but how we deal with it as a nation. In short, it is not a source of pride, to be sure. Aside from contributing to bloated prison populations, the policy of treating youth as adults in the Criminal Justice System produces many harmful effects which are counter-intuitive to the mission of our nation’s justice system.
The essential purpose of the justice system is twofold: to reduce crime through separation of offenders from society and to rehabilitate those offenders so they may once again become productive citizens. Currently, the justice system (particularly of New York) is failing in this second objective. Both ACTS and Raise the Age insists, with support from research and facts, that trying 16 year-olds as adults encourages recidivism and profoundly damages youth. Rehabilitation is difficult, if not impossible for many of these youth.
If the age of criminal responsibility is raised to 18, youth of 16 and 17 will finally have access to the continuum of services offered in the juvenile system. The juvenile system, with its greater focus on rehabilitation, has allowed youth to serve time in youth-geared facilities. Youth convicted of non-violent crimes in the juvenile system may remain under counseling in their homes and communities, allowing for adjustment without sacrificing public safety. This is significant, as 70% of youth criminal cases for 16 and 17-year-olds are misdemeanors, with an additional 14% for non-violent felony charges. Only 14% of cases pertain to violent felonies, those of which would continue to be processed through the adult criminal court systems. Murder, rape, and other heinous acts would still be met with strict consequences even under “Raise the Age” legislation, with juvenile courts being used only on express permission of the District Attorney.
As it stands now, thousands of youth are not properly rehabilitated. Youth processed in adult criminal justice systems have 34% more re-arrests for felony charges. Furthermore, 80% of youth released from adult prisons re-offend, often escalating the severity of their crimes. The main reason for this failure is that youth are not adults in body, experience, or mind, no matter how much the current law insists. Top researchers of brain development across the country agree that the brain is not fully developed until 25 years of age. Teenagers often display impulsive behavior for this reason, as the ability to maturely assess future consequences has not yet formed completely. Anyone who can remember their high school days will probably find some truth in this.
Education plays a huge role in forming this responsibility, but those who are put in adult prison systems are taken away from their high school education. Graduation becomes unlikely, and these youth are left with little recourse but to commit crimes for survival. Raise the Age would correct this, ensuring that our justice system does not work against rehabilitation. Raise the Age would also protect the safety of youth, as juveniles in the adult system are 36 times more likely to commit suicide and 50% more likely to suffer violence or sexual abuse. An emotionally traumatized youth, or a dead youth for that matter, has little opportunity for positive change. ACTS wants to transform Syracuse into a just community, and it is clear that starts with our justice system. The major Policy points of Raise the age can be read here(link), so be sure to contact our elected officials and insist on these conditions.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.