Monday, March 7, 2016

Criminal Justice: Treating Children as Children

By Amanda Roaf

The idea of treating children as children has a complex application in the criminal justice system. It is even further complicated in New York State by the woefully low age of criminal responsibility that has been established at 16 years of age. Until 2012, young people coming through the criminal court system in New York City on misdemeanor charges were generally mandated to complete adult sanctions. Four years ago, something radical happened within our system. The Chief Judge of New York State at the time, Jonathan Lippman, called upon experts already working with court-involved youth, including the staff at Midtown Community Court (MCC), to create pilot court parts tailored to the specific developmental needs of young people. In nine locations across New York State, 16- and 17-year-olds in court for violations and low-level misdemeanors now had access to age-appropriate resources and sanctions through the Adolescent Diversion Part (ADP). This innovation would prove to be a catalyst for system change in the years to come.

Research has informed this and many of the other positive shifts in how our system treats youth. Studies have clearly laid out the differences between the brain of an adolescent and that of an adult, and how these differences impact behavior. While our young people are smart, creative, and resilient beyond belief, they are also more likely to make risky or impulsive decisions, succumb to the influence of their peers, and experience significant mood swings – all due to normative brain development. These scientific findings have greatly informed how our court operates and how we view alternative sanctions and sentencing for young people. Additionally, the growing international body of research on the principles of risk, need, and responsivity has also greatly informed our practices. We now know that people are particularly responsive to court-mandated interventions that target their specific areas of need and match their level of risk of recidivism.

The success of ADP, along with continued developments in research, has paved the way for advancements that are increasingly adaptive and responsive to the needs of young people. This month the Young Adult Part was opened at MCC to expand access to developmentally sound mandates to youth ages 18-20. The prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and MCC social workers who collaborated to form ADP now work together to ensure that all eligible youth ages 16-20 have access to services that are supportive of their needs and also maintain accountability to the community. Young people can be mandated to perform arts-based community service, engage in groups designed to teach affect-regulation skills, or participate in counseling services that assess more deeply for signs and impact of trauma.  

There have been many exciting developments in how we treat court-involved young people in our city and our country. From the local changes including Project Reset, a pre-court diversion program, to the newly opened Young Adult Part at MCC, stakeholders in the city are working hard to put better options in place for youth. On a national level we have seen exciting reforms to policies impacting youth such as banning solitary confinement and mandatory life sentences for some juveniles. We are seeing a major shift in the way our criminal justice system incorporates the principles of brain development and risk, need and responsivity. We at MCC see the impact that these changes, large and small, have had on the youth we work with every day and we are grateful to be a part of continued progress and reform.