New York lawmakers are balking at a bill submitted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, the standard throughout most of the country. But legislators in Louisiana, which imprisons the most citizens per capita and has the worst record in the country for meting out life sentences to adolescents, are giving a similar bill a warm, bipartisan reception.
Louisiana is one of nine remaining states that automatically prosecute 17-year-olds as adults. But thanks in part to strong leadership by its new governor, John Bel Edwards, the State Senate voted to raise the age of adult prosecution to 18. The bill, which deserves to pass the House as well, would still permit adult prosecution for young people accused of committing serious crimes but would move most of the young accused into the juvenile system, which is better prepared to help them. Mr. Edwards calls the raise-the-age bill a “down payment” on a sweeping criminal justice reform package that he hopes to advance next year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, bottom center, speaking at a rally for juvenile justice system reform on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol. Credit Bill Feig/The Advocate, via Associated Press
Louisiana’s current law is particularly onerous. It sends 17-year-olds into adult courts for even for the most minor offenses. This means that a normally well-behaved teenager who gets into a fight at high school can be charged with battery and held in a jail with adults.
Advocates for juveniles persuaded legislators to support the new law partly by showing that most adolescents are arrested for nonviolent offenses and that young people handled by the juvenile system are much less likely to become a costly burden to society.
The practice of treating 17-year-olds as adults in Louisiana dates to a law passed more than 100 years ago. New York’s law, by contrast, is the product of legislative inertia. In 1962, when New York created the juvenile justice system under the Family Court Act, lawmakers were unable to agree on the age at which offenders should be declared adults. They set it temporarily at 16, pending further hearings. The “temporary” measure became permanent, and tens of thousands of young people a year were pushed into the criminal courts, most for nonviolent crimes like shoplifting, fare beating in the subways or marijuana possession.
Change in New York is long overdue.
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A version of this editorial appears in print on May 22, 2016, on page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: New York Teenagers Dumped in Adult Jails. Today's Paper|Subscribe
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New York Teenagers Dumped in Adult Jails - The New York Times