Support Raise The Age Legislation

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Editor’s Note: Jeanette Walowitz’s original letter appears in its entirety below, followed by the abridged version that ran in this week’s Great Neck Record.

NY State Reform Long Overdue

Incarceration of adolescents is estimated to cost between $200,000 and $300,000 per youth per year in New York State. Considering the poor results of our prison system to rehabilitate our youthful offenders, it is no wonder that red and blue states alike have launched new initiatives and passed bills to overhaul the way they treat adolescent and teenage offenders. Virtually every state in the union has entered this fourth wave of progressive reform, adopting fair and just practices that protect communities and help all kids become responsible adults. Forty-eight states have or are again raising the upper age of jurisdiction to age 18, including Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi. But not New York State!

I urge our newly elected senator, Elaine Phillips, to join me and hundreds of her constituents to support the Raise the Age legislation that has been stalled in the New York State Senate for the past few years. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein have all voiced support to finally pass legislation against underage incarceration in the state during this legislative term. Governor Cuomo stands behind the legislation, which proposes to keep children under the age of 18 out of adult prisons, to ensure the presence of a parent or guardian during questioning and sentencing, and ensure a juvenile will not be imprisoned for breaking parole—given they are not a danger to others—as well as require family support centers and special care for children with significant behavioral-health issues. Last year, the governor had earmarked funding to transfer youthful offenders out of adult state prisons, where they can receive much-needed rehabilitative services, provided by family court. The bill has the support of more than 200 organizations, hundreds of clergies and community groups, who have been working tirelessly to raise awareness across the state for more than 10 years. One organization, the Correctional Association of New York, has long been leading the way in the Raise the Age NY campaign to improve outcomes for children and public safety.

The savings in terms of reducing crime and youth recidivism, and especially in terms of lives, will be enormous. The adolescent brain is still developing; adolescents respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of delinquent behavior. This same undeveloped brain that is often responsible for reckless, impulsive behavior is malleable and equally receptive to positive change.

Here in New York, and in North Carolina, the only other state, 16- and 17-year-olds continue to be prosecuted and imprisoned as adults with adults in hellholes, like Riker’s Island. They can wait in prison for years to go to trial—a disproportionate number of them, black and Latino, unable to post bail—even for a petty crime, like the theft of a backpack. As a teacher in Nassau County for more than 20 years, I have worked with hundreds of troubled teens. One of my students—I’ll call him Randall—a 16-year-old boy attending an alternative program at Nassau BOCES was one of the unlucky ones. Shy, slight of build and insecure, he worked hard and was very cooperative in the classroom. Still, he kept falling in with the tough guys from Hempstead. While he was usually only a bystander, he eventually got caught and suspended, but we continued to work with him. One day, we got the bad news—Randall was arrested, as part of a burglary, where he was caught in the getaway car, with a gun in the car. Randall’s mother, a single parent and poor, had no options except for the court-appointed lawyers.

Of course, he should never have put himself in this criminal situation, but there he was. A very young kid, with really no ability to make sound judgments, kind of lost, caught up in the pressure of his peer group to fit in, losing his life to a future of imprisonment among hard-core, adult-male inmates. These children are twice as likely to report being beaten by inmates or prison guards than children placed in youth facilities.

Raise the Age Legislation would have given Randall half a chance at receiving rehabilitative services, therapy, school, training and programming to reengage him in the community, instead of wasting another young life. Senator Phillips, we are counting on you to help put New York State back on the right map, along with the other 48 states that have boldly raised the age of adult-criminal responsibility. Restore the chance for a stable future to so, so many young lives.

—Jeanette Walowitz
Bend the Arc, NY Chapter Leader


Here’s the abridged version of the letter that appeared in this week’s Great Neck Record.

Sadly, New York and North Carolina are the only two states left which prosecute and incarcerate 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, often leaving them to languish in adult state prisons, where they are 50 percent more likely to be abused or beaten by inmates and prison guards than in youth facilities.

I urge our newly elected Senator Elaine Phillips to join me and hundreds of her constituents to support the Raise the Age legislation, which has been stalled in the NYS Senate for the past few years. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate IDC Leader Jeffrey Klein have all voiced support to finally pass legislation against underage incarceration in the state during this legislative term. Governor Cuomo stands behind the legislation, which proposes to keep children younger than the age of 18 out of adult prisons, to ensure the presence of a parent or guardian during questioning and sentencing and ensure that a juvenile will not be imprisoned for breaking parole—given they are not a danger to others—as well as require family support centers and special care for children with significant behavioral health issues. Last year, the governor had earmarked funding to transfer youthful offenders out of adult state prisons, where they can receive much needed rehabilitative services provided by family court. The bill has the support of more than 200 organizations and hundreds of clergies and community groups who have been working tirelessly to raise awareness across the state for more than 10 years.

The savings in terms of reducing crime and youth recidivism, and especially, in terms of lives, will be enormous. The adolescent brain is still developing; adolescents respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices and are likely to grow out of delinquent behavior. This same undeveloped brain that is often responsible for reckless, impulsive behavior, is malleable and equally receptive to positive change.

Senator Phillips, we are counting on you to help put New York State back on the right map, along with the other 48 states which have boldly raised the age of adult criminal responsibility. Restore the chance for a stable future to so, so many young lives.

Jeanette Walowitz

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