Beyond Raising the Age: Helping young people grow, thrive and become responsible adults

A robust and necessary conversation is taking place in New York about raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old.  New York and North Carolina remain the only two states that still treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, despite what we now know about neuroscience and adolescent development.  Those in favor of raising the age often point to adolescents’ limitations when it comes to impulse control, empathy, and consequential thinking in particular. These limitations are rooted in a natural process of cognitive development that the research shows is still very much underway for young people at that age and all the way through a person’s mid-20s. 

Common Justice, a demonstration project of the Vera Institute of Justice, is an alternative to incarceration and victim service program for serious felonies based in Brooklyn, NY.  We work with 16- to 24-year-old defendants and those they have harmed, and part of our responsibility is to hold young people accountable for the choices they make and the impact those choices have on others. Our goal is to cultivate a foundation of impulse control, empathy, and consequential thinking among adolescents who are still developing. 

Even if New York successfully raises the age of criminal responsibility, we still have a huge task: developing effective, developmentally appropriate interventions informed by research and science to help older adolescents grow into thoughtful, law-abiding, empathetic, and responsible young adults.  While we cannot hurry physiology, we can develop programs that support adolescents’ natural development by helping them to recognize the link between their actions and consequences, to consider the emotions and experiences of others, and to develop strategies to manage their impulses.

At Common Justice, for instance, the graduated sanctions we impose for low-level noncompliance are quick, clear, and consistently applied—as are the rewards for responsible behavior. By drawing a daily link between responsibility and autonomy, we respond to the developmental reality of our participants while working with them to build skills to act responsibly and thrive.  Our curriculum—which is still being tested—is designed to help participants understand the consequences of their actions (good and bad) and to recognize how their actions affected others. In developing practices to calm their anxiety, clear their minds, and help them make better decisions, we are providing them with essential tools to strengthen their sense of dignity, set goals and build self-awareness. Our participants develop communication skills, understand how their personal experiences shape their actions, and develop strong support networks that can see them through to adulthood.  This process is essentially designed to hold them accountable—a value we must not compromise just because we recognize their youth.

At Common Justice, we continue to learn alongside the young people we serve. We are hopeful that the dialogue about raising the age can energize a commitment to designing and implementing research and practices that not only recognize the time it takes for young people to become adults, but that also help them thrive, respect others, and stay safe as they grow.

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