Christopher Varmus: The Case for “Raising the Age”
Date:  10-29-2013

Remembering the juvenilein juvenile offenders
October 25, 2013

Christopher Varmus,

On a recent Friday in the Juvenile Offenders Part of a New York State Supreme Court, a defense counsel asked that her 16 year-old client, before being sentenced on a felony robbery count, be granted a special request. The defendant’s family— a procession of mother, several young children, a teenaged girl and a baby in a stroller— had come to see him off, and “could he,“ the attorney asked, “be allowed to take a few minutes to meet with them, including the 4-month old daughter whom he has never met?”

In full view of a room full of strangers, before going in to serve his 2 to 6 years, a teenager experienced his first moment of fatherhood— in handcuffs. When he asked the bailiff if there was any way the cuffs could come off so he could hold his baby, the curt reply was, “absolutely not— it’s a safety issue.” There was a deafening silence in the courtroom as father and daughter connected with eyes only— no touching.

Many of those in the audience looked around as if to ask if others were seeing the same thing. The mother of another of the defendants in court that day dabbed at tears. “I’m a punk about stuff like that,” she said to no one in particular, laughing at her own human reaction.

The moment may have stood out because the criminal justice system is typically a de-humanizing one. It’s easier if we don’t think of those caught up in it as people, but as criminals or offenders. This phenomenon is particularly striking when we are talking about kids— or, rather, juvenile offenders.

Treating children as adults in the criminal justice system is not only callous, but short-sighted and ineffective; youth incarcerated in adult facilities are far more likely to recidivate — a reality at odds with the goal of protecting public safety. Young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system have significantly more re-arrests for felony crimes than those retained in the youth system. Around 80% of youth released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes.

Youth in adult prisons face the highest risk of sexual assault, are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and are nearly 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon than those placed in youth facilities. The isolation youth face in adult facilities, where they are often placed in solitary confinement, can cause irreparable harm to their mental health. Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility.

Each year, nearly 50,000 16 and 17 year-olds face prosecution as adults in New York, one of only two states in the country— the other being North Carolina— where the age of criminal responsibility is 16. For certain “violent” crimes, usually robbery, children between 13 and 15 can be— and are, 600 times a year— prosecuted in adult criminal courts.

What will life be like for that young father when he is released from jail 2 to 6 years from now? He will be ineligible for public housing, food stamps, or welfare. In addition to child support, he will have thousands of dollars in court fees to pay, and he will have a felony on his permanent record. Having to “check the box” alone would make it hard enough for him to get a job, even with a proper education and training, neither of which he is likely to receive in an adult facility. When we consider the impossible situation ex-convicts— who, let us not forget, have just been through a prolonged traumatic experience— face on re-entry, it is easy to understand why so many end up back in the system (especially when all it takes is a parole violation).

We need to figure out, as a society, whether we want our system to be about punishment or rehabilitation. We have been going the punitive (“tough on crime”) route for quite some time now, and it doesn’t seem to be working. The collateral damages are too great, and the benefit to society, if any, is unclear.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and in this case, a good first step would be for New York to join with 37 other states and the District of Columbia in setting the age of criminal responsibility at 18. Rather than continuing to lock up children as young as 13 in adult prisons, New York must ensure that youth involved in the criminal justice system are provided with developmentally appropriate court processes, services and placement options. “Tough on crime” should not mean “tough on kids”— because, as we would see if we took the time to look, that ends up being tough on all of us.

Christopher Varmus

MSW Candidate, Columbia University School of Social Work

Intern Case Manager, Center for Community Alternatives