The Hon. Jonathan Lippman addresses the Citizens Crime Commission on Sept. 21. Photo by Ken Levinson

Speaking at Fordham on Sept. 21, the head of New York’s court system announced a new statewide effort to take a more humane approach to 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders by treating them as children to be reformed rather than criminals to be punished.

It is a “glaring problem” that New York still prosecutes these offenders as adults, said Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the State of New York and of the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. Addressing the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, he asked its members to help persuade the legislature to raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility and expand services for young offenders.

He announced a pilot program, to be set up in the next 90 days, under which the state’s criminal courts will provide 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders with social services that are more typical of family court. He said these services are cost-effective and more likely to keep young offenders off a criminal path.

“As a state, what do we want for our 16- and 17-year-olds who get arrested for minor drug offenses, shoplifting, vandalism, trespassing, fare beating, or the like?” he asked. “Do we really want these teenagers to be processed in an adult criminal justice system focused on punishment and incarceration? Where rehabilitative options are limited, where they may be jailed, where they may be victimized and where they may be burdened with a criminal record that bars them from employment and educational opportunities?”

He called instead for “a system that is focused on rehabilitation and getting children back on the right track, that offers supervision, mental health treatment, remedial education and other services and programs.”

Lippman lauded the commission for its work on juvenile justice issues. He noted that great progress has been made since the days when the state locked up more than 2,200 young offenders every year, most of them 15 or under, in state facilities that were “breeding grounds for abuse and future criminality.” The cost exceeded $200,000 per year per child, he said. Today, fewer than 700 are incarcerated, he said.

But he noted that New York is one of only two states where 16 remains the age of criminal responsibility.

It flies in the face of scientific research and common sense to prosecute 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults, Lippman said. He said the cutoff of 16 was meant to be a temporary measure when it was adopted by the legislature in 1962.

Science shows that older adolescents “are different than adults,” he said. “Their brains are not fully mature,” which limits their ability to make reasoned judgments, weigh risks, control impulses and resist peer pressure, he said.

He added: “In our society, we don’t allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote or drink or serve in the military, because we know full well that they lack the necessary maturity and judgment. Why, then, do we treat them as adults when it comes to crime? Why? It makes no sense.”

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Lippman (center) stands with commission president Richard M. Aborn (left) and Thomas A. Dunne, a member of the commission’s board of directors and vice president for government relations and urban affairs at Fordham. Photo by Ken Levinson

He said older adolescents who wind up in criminal court have a higher recidivism rate, and later commit violent crimes and felony property crimes at a rate far higher than those who go through the family court system.

Under the pilot program, he said, 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders will be steered to criminal court judges who are trained to connect troubled adolescents with services that will help them. “This is no idle daydream,” Lippman said, adding that the state has been using this approach in its drug courts, mental health courts and community courts for adults.

He acknowledged the hurdles to changing the system, such as the cost of expanding the juvenile justice system. He said it’s up to the commission members and others to convince legislators that the benefits will far outweigh the expense.

“[This] will be a challenge, but it is hardly an impossible task,” he said. “New York has overcome difficult challenges before, and we can do so again, if the people in this room join together and commit themselves, as I do today, on behalf of the judiciary, to being leaders on this issue.”