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Another Voice: Raise the age for offenders

By David Babcock, Thomas DeMond, Rev. James Giles and Rev. JoAnne Scott

We write as presidents and leaders of multifaith organizations and allies from all across Western and Central New York. Together we represent over 100 local congregations and nearly three dozen social justice coalitions. We come from many different faith traditions: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Quaker, Unitarian.

We are African-American, Latino, Anglo and from every corner of the globe. We are urban and suburban, rich and poor, young and old, Republican and Democrat, progressive and conservative, and everything in between or even none of the above.

But this we have in common – a deep and long-standing commitment to the well-being of our communities, families, children and youth … and to doing everything in our power to ensure the fullness and wholeness of life for everyone.

Here in New York, however, once young people reach the age of 16, they are immediately subject to being treated as full adults should they be accused of a transgression. Worse yet, if they are found guilty, they are subject to being sentenced to adult prisons, where they will be surrounded by older and perhaps career or hardened inmates. This flies in the face of both common sense and moral decency.

This practice disproportionately affects youth and families of color, with black and Latino youth comprising over 70 percent of all 16- and 17-year-olds arrested and 80 percent of those who are sentenced.

Forty-eight other states have stopped this practice, and the data is in. Charging youth as youth – in a system like Family Court where judges are trained to handle youth and their families – leads to better outcomes for the children, their families and our communities. Recidivism is lower and the interventions available are more effective than those in criminal court, where the options are much more limited.

Almost 30,000 16- and 17-year-old New Yorkers are arrested as adults. Their parents aren’t notified. They then enter our local jails, criminal courts and, if they’re guilty, prisons. Eighty percent go on to reoffend, often committing more-serious crimes.

We can help end this cycle. The juvenile system – while far from perfect – has better outcomes.
Raising the age includes serious consequences. The governor’s proposal recognizes that violent offenses can often be dealt with better in criminal court. However, youth, if convicted, will do their time in secure, age-appropriate facilities.

We call on our elected officials to do what’s best for our communities. Tens of thousands of youths, their families and our communities are counting on them to raise the age now.

David Babcock is president of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse. Thomas DeMond is president of the Rochester Alliance of Communities Transforming Society. Rev. James Giles is president of VOICE-Buffalo. Rev. JoAnne Scott is president of Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope.

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