Letter to NY Legislators: We Cannot Go Back on Reforms in the Face of Increased Violence

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October 14, 2021 

Dear Governor Kathy Hochul, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Speaker Carl Heastie:

We understand that last week, 20 members of the New York City Council wrote to you calling for  rollbacks to New York’s landmark 2017 Raise the Age legislation, including removing discretion from  judges to remove cases where 16 and 17 year olds are charged with gun violence to family court. The undersigned, representing over 60 service, faith based, grassroots, and advocacy organizations around the state, write to express our strong and unwavering support for Raise the Age. 

We share the Council Members’ deep concern over the increase in gun violence over the past 18 months,  and the urgency to reverse it immediately. However, placing the blame for gun violence on the Raise the  Age legislation is simply false. During the first eighteen months after the Raise the Age law was enacted,  only three percent of charges filed against sixteen and seventeen year olds were for attempted murders and murders and ten percent were for possession of firearms and other dangerous weapons. During that  time, shootings in New York City remained the lowest they have been in decades.

Only after months of COVID-19 infections, deaths, lockdowns, disconnection from necessary services  and the resulting economic upheaval did gun violence increase in New York City, as it did in many cities  around the country where criminal justice reforms had not been enacted. Despite the recent rise in gun  related incidents, the numbers are still far lower than the rates in 2000 when 16- and 17-year olds were all  prosecuted as adults for all criminal charges, even the most minor.

Furthermore, under Raise the Age, the law specifically allows for teenagers charged with the most serious  crimes or those who are found not to be amenable to the services available in family court to be charged  and sentenced in the adult court system.

The reality is that we can’t incarcerate our way out of gun violence. That has been tried and failed—New  York spent decades laboring under the myth that children are adults with no evidence that the practice  ever reduced crime rates. By the time Raise the Age passed in 2017, New York was one of only two states  in the country that continued to prosecute sixteen and seventeen year olds automatically as adults. This  policy led to extreme disproportionate impacts such that the vast majority of youth facing the lifelong  burden of a criminal record were Black and Brown young people living in our most vulnerable  communities. Fear cannot permit these shameful and discriminatory practices to return.

New York City communities – particularly our Black and Latinx communities that are hardest hit by gun  violence – have also been the hardest hit by COVID. We need effective solutions and resources to heal  from COVID and to remedy the racial and economic inequities that the pandemic exposed and  exacerbated. A clearer understanding of the problems we are facing now will lead to better and more  effective policies. Below we review some of the most relevant and concerning studies of the impact  COVID has had on young people in our most vulnerable communities.

A national youth mental health crisis: A recent paper from the School Mental Health Assessment and  Training Center, along with other health and mental health clinicians, highlighted some of the devastating  mental health impacts of COVID-19 on youth across the country:

  • According to the CDC, nationally, the proportion of emergency visits for mental health issues for  youth aged 12-17 increased by 31% during the pandemic.
  • A CDC report from June 2020 found that young adults (aged 18-24) are experiencing mental  health conditions at higher rates than other people in our communities. One in four young adults  was found to have seriously considered suicide – an increase from one in 10 young adults pre-pandemic.
  • Drug overdoses in 2020 showed the largest single-year increase in over 20 years.

Deepening Educational Disparities: A June 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office  for Civil Rights documents eleven findings about “how widely—and inequitably—the pandemic appears  to have impacted America’s students,” including:

  • Emerging evidence shows that the pandemic has negatively affected academic growth, widening pre-existing disparities.
  • COVID-19 appears to have deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing  many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers that make it  harder to stay engaged in virtual classrooms.
  • COVID-19 has raised new barriers for many postsecondary students, with heightened impacts  emerging for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers, both  for entry into higher education and for continuing and completing their studies.

Sustained Family Trauma: During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 600 Black  children and 1 in 700 Latinx children lost their parent or caregiver to the pandemic in New York State.  More than half of those parent deaths were in three New York City boroughs: the Bronx, Brooklyn, and  Queens.

A new study published in Pediatrics this month shows that nearly 1 in every 500 children in the U.S. has  lost a caregiver, and children of color have been disproportionately affected, with the highest loss of  primary caregivers in California, Texas and New York. Losing a primary or secondary caregiver is  associated with a range of negative health effects, including lower self-esteem, a higher risk of suicide,  and acts of violence. According to the doctors who conducted the study, addressing the impact of this  level of family death on young people will “require intentional investment to address individual,  community, and structural inequalities.”

To better understand the root of gun violence in New York City specifically – and therefore how to most  effectively address it – we can also look to ambitious research conducted here in the City about why  young people carry and use guns. In August of 2020, the Center for Court Innovation published a report  based on interviews with 330 New York City youth ages 16-24 who were at high risk for gun violence. The results of this investigation are nuanced and worth reading in full, but some of the most salient findings include:

  • Lack of safety was reported as a major driver of gun possession. Participants reported feeling  unsafe because of beefs between rival gangs or housing projects affecting how they could “move”—i.e., where they could safely walk or go; police harassment for small infractions but  lack of responsiveness for serious crime; and fear of being shot by a police officer.
  • Violence was a near universal experience among the young people interviewed. Eighty-one  percent had been shot or shot at.
  • Protection and self-defense were repeatedly cited as the backdrop against which decisions around  weapons-carrying were made.
  • Participants often described lack of ready access to money as a source of stress for themselves  and their families, leading to engagement in alternative-economy survival strategies—most often  drug dealing and robbery.
  • Participants felt that police treated gang members and youth from the projects as less than human,  “criminals,” “demons,” and “animals.” They also made specific connections between their poor  treatment by the police and their race.

Increasing youth detention, harsh sentencing laws, and trying children as adults are outdated and  ineffective solutions to the very real problem of gun violence in our communities. Thousands of pages of  research have documented how these policies derail young people’s lives, burden families, destabilize  communities, and fail to create community safety — negative impacts that are disproportionately felt by  Black and Latinx youth and families.

The same research points to a wide range of solutions that the City and State can pursue or expand right  now to reverse the increase in gun violence that began last summer. These include:

  • Increasing investments in high-quality, culturally competent mental health services for youth and  families, in schools and in the community.
  • Bringing high-quality youth engagement programs and services, including those employing  “credible messengers,” to young people in spaces that are important to them.
  • Creating job programs that meet young people where they are at and help them find pathways to  living wage jobs.
  • Investing in green spaces, safe and affordable housing and public spaces.
  • Strengthening anti-violence social norms and peer relationships through violence intervention  programs like Cure Violence.

Under your leadership, New York has begun to invest and implement many of these policies, but much  more is needed to bring them to scale. For instance, even with recent expansions to Cure Violence  programs we are far from being able to saturate neighborhoods with violence interrupters, and the pay for  these positions is low in comparison to the difficulty of the work. We need bigger and more sustained  investments in these kinds of public health responses to gun violence, along with strategies to link youth  and families to meaningful supports in addition to pathways for housing and economic security.

The Raise the Age NY Coalition includes organizations from across New York, including formerly-incarcerated youth and their families, child advocates, service providers, faith leaders, legal services groups, and unions. Together, we helped pass the Raise the Age law to end the practice of automatically charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Today, we stand with allies from across the state who are moving youth justice forward.