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New York move leaves just one state that puts 16-year-olds in adult jails

If you’re convicted of a crime at age 16 or 17 in New York or North Carolina, you’ll be treated like an adult, tried as an adult, and serve your sentence in an adult facility.

Those are the only two states that process 16-to-17-year-olds that way, but it’s about to change in New York.

The state Legislature on Sunday evening passed its long-awaited “Raise the Age” bill — raising the age of adult criminal responsibility for nonviolent offenses to 18 — as part of the budget package for fiscal-year 2018. The effort will be phased in through October 2019.


Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who championed “Raise the Age”, gave a news conference Monday in Harlem, where the memory of Kalief Browder loomed large. The black 16-year-old was arrested in May 2010 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He was locked up on Rikers Island — New York’s notoriously troubled and violent prison — for three years without ever going to trial, and spent most of his time there in solitary. His mental health suffered after he was released, and two years later he committed suicide.

“Putting a 16-year-old on Rikers Island is an abomination. Rikers Island is an abomination,” said Cuomo. “This is the state of New York. It’s New York City that this is going on. The progressive capital of the world. The home of diversity, justice, where the NAACP started.”

“And we have the most cruel, the most unjust result you can imagine,” Cuomo added.” “When I sign that piece of paper: No more. Not in the state of New York. Cuomo took executive action to Raise the Age in 2015, and lawmakers have failed to approve the measure in legislative sessions since.

“It often takes a tragedy to get our attention,” said the activist Rev. Al Sharpton during the news conference, adding he hopes New York youth will “think of Kalief Browder when they’re given an opportunity and a new chance in life.”

Kalief is “a symbol that has turned into legislation and that has turned into concrete change,” Sharpton said.

Last year, nearly 25,000 teens aged 16 or 17 were arrested in New York and therefore faced the possibility of being tried in an adult court. Of those, 70 percent were black or Latino.

Young people who serve time in adult criminal facilities are 34 percent more likely to commit violent or other criminal offenses later in life than youth detained in juvenile facilities, a 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Youth held in adult facilities are five times more likely to report being a victim of rape, twice as likely to report being assaulted by prison guards, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked by another inmate, than the adult inmate population, according to a report by the National Juvenile Justice Network.