New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and top law enforcement officials in his administration want to end the practice of criminalizing younger teenagers as adults in the state’s criminal justice system. The de Blasio administration, in a statement released Wednesday, said it supports Raise the Age legislation that would increase the age of criminal responsibility for offenders who are 16 and 17 years old.
Currently, state law treats those individuals as adults under the criminal justice system. That guarantees some young offenders a one-way ticket to New York City’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility, a jail that was recently rocked by a scandal over violence among inmates and abuses by corrections officers.
De Blasio in March announced plans to reduce violence at Rikers Island by limiting visitors, adding surveillance cameras and sequestering rival gangs. The call for policy reform is an effort to match what other states have done to rehabilitate juvenile offenders, officials said.
“New York State has long been a pioneer in safe and effective juvenile and criminal policies,” reads a statement attributed to de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and corrections department officials. “Yet, to our shame, in one area -- treating 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system -- we are behind all but one other state in the country.”
The administration said it has been proven that young people differ from adults in the way they make long-lasting behavioral changes and should be rehabilitated differently. Officials are seeking "a sensible and safe approach" to expanding juvenile courts, as well as age-appropriate facilities and services during their confinement.
The trend of charging juveniles as adults began in the 1990s, when nearly every U.S. state expanded the rules on the policy. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May 2010 banned states from sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole, if they haven't been convicted of murder.
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Several members of de Blasio’s administration, including Ana Bermudez, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and Vincent Schiraldi, a senior advisor in that office, were expected to be in Albany on Wednesday to lobby state lawmakers on the Raise the Age legislation. Senate Republicans are the main opposition the proposed reforms, the Albany Times Union reported.
The de Blasio administration said it was urging passage of the legislation before the end of the legislative session in June. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the legislation was an agenda priority, during his State of the State address in January.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan last August released a damning report about brutality at Rikers Island and threatened to sue the city unless officials made changes, the New York Times reported. De Blasio has said that jail reform is a top priority. His administration ended the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates last December and stipulated that all teenagers should attend the jailhouse school.
But even after the U.S. attorney’s report and intense public scrutiny -- de Blasio and his team hired new corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte in April -- violence continued at Rikers Island, according to the Times. Corrections officers used force against inmates 4,074 times in 2014, the highest level in more than 10 years, according to state Correction Department data obtained by the Times.
Those numbers are at the root of city officials’ plea to lawmakers this week. They said raising the age of criminal responsibility for youth offenders would “reduce their re-offending and help them get their lives back on track.”