“I was 16 when I was arrested for a fight I had with another girl. Because of NY’s law, I was charged as an adult and convicted of a felony. I worked hard to get my GED and Associate’s after, but was denied jobs over and over because of my felony. I was also denied rental assistance to get affordable housing for me and my daughter. I feel like I walk around with an “F” for felony on my chest for a mistake I made when I was just 16.”
This is a testimonial demonstrating the lasting damages caused when adolescents are incarcerated. Sadly, all it takes is one mistake to define the course of their entire lives. Placing youth in juvenile detention centers is not only harmful to their physical and mental health, but it also affects their social well-being. The detention process makes it difficult for adolescents to get the adequate exercise, nutrition, and healthcare support they need at that age. In addition, their education is interrupted, and they are disconnected from their families and communities. These negative effects contribute to disparities experienced by this group compared to their counterparts.
The negative effects of incarceration are exacerbated when youths are locked up in adult jails and prisons with murderers, rapists, and robbers. Ex-inmate Maurice Hines stated, “I’ve been in prison with 16- and 17-year-old kids. It crushes them.”
Unfortunately, this is the reality of the New York criminal justice system. According to Raise the Age NY’s public awareness campaign, approximately 28,000 youths, ages 16-17, are arrested and prosecuted as adults each year, 72% of which are misdemeanors. In addition, 600 children, ages 13-15, are processed in adult criminal courts. Kids, who had previously just been like any other student in their schools, then end up in juvenile detentions or adult jails and prisons.
Ismael Nazario, who was sent to Riker’s Island at 16 years old, stated, “He hit me from this way; another one hit me from behind… That was after being there for 2 1/2 days.” Youths in adult prisons are more likely to be beaten and attacked by inmates and staff; and of all inmate populations, youths face the highest risk of sexual assault. In addition, they lack access to the age- appropriate rehabilitative services that are available in juvenile facilities, and they are often placed in solitary confinement. These heinous and traumatic conditions of confinement in adult jails and prisons severely damaged their youths’ mental and physical development, as evidenced by increased instances of self-harming, higher suicide rates, and worsening mental health outcome. Also, being in that environment diminishes their life prospects. They become are regarded as threats to public safety upon release, and they struggle with recidivism.
It is true that the behavior of adolescent’s behavior often makes them appear impulsive. However, scientific studies have proven that this impulsivity is governed by drives different from those of adults. Adolescents are still in the process of developing cognitive skills. This is explained by adolescent neurodevelopment which is the developmental changes in adolescent brain, and neuroplasticity which Medicine Net describes as the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neutral connections throughout life. The interaction between adolescent development and neuroplasticity, with the addition of the social determinant factors and external factors such as where the adolescents live, their schools, and where they play, supports the theory that adolescent behavior is influenced by these factors, making their behaviors explainable. It is also true that some children need “discipline,” but we need to remember that being locked up is not the way. There needs to be Constructive ways are needed, ways that would promote youth development and long-term benefit for the youth.
Fortunately, many states, including New York, now recognizes what research and science has confirmed regarding the physical, mental, and social risks juveniles face when they are incarcerated. As a result, New York has come up with the Raise the Age reform. Governor Andrew Cuomo is now in the process of fully implementing this a policy that will prevent 16- and 17- year year-old’s from being charged as adults. This is a first step, but it is not enough. Dr. Alice Green, the Executive Director of The Center for Law and Justice in Albany, was named the Chairperson of the Zero Youth Detention Task Force, which is currently in the process of approving its membership. Currently, the Center is working to pull together research specific to Albany County, such as the actual number of incarcerated youths and what post-release services are currently available, as well as figuring out best practices from the King County model which could be applied to already existing institutions. This initiative will present an effective alternative to incarceration.
No child belongs in jail of any kind. Let us continue to brainstorm on alternative systems where youth have a better chance at a positive childhood and adulthood without any interaction with the criminal justice system.