These days, it seems like everyone's talking about criminal justice reform - but getting "smart on crime" doesn't have a partisan divide. From religious leaders to progressives to law enforcement officials to conservative politicians like Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, leaders across the political spectrum have come to recognize that criminal justice reform, particularly for juveniles, is badly needed to improve public safety in our communities.
New York has long lagged behind other states on this issue. Most strikingly, we are one of only two states - the other being North Carolina - that automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in our criminal justice system. But we are on the brink of change, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo backing a comprehensive plan for juvenile justice reform.
One year ago, the governor convened the Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice- made up of legal, criminal justice and social services experts - and charged it with addressing this critical issue. They developed a comprehensive plan to reform the juvenile justice system, and last month the governor gave it his full-throated endorsement, including it in his proposed 2015-16 Executive Budget.
The plan would fundamentally change our approach to young people in the criminal justice system, with a focus on reducing recidivism rates and, in turn, improving public safety. Nearly 35,000 arrested 16- and 17-year olds in New York faced the possibility of prosecution as adults in criminal court in 2013 - the vast majority, 74 percent, for misdemeanors. More than 70 percent of youth arrested are black or Latino. Of those sentenced to incarceration last year, 80 percent are black or Latino.
The conditions these young people face in the adult criminal justice system increase the likelihood of their recidivism, making all of our communities less safe.
National studies show that young people in the adult system have 34 percent more rearrests for felony crimes than those in the youth system. A shocking 80 percent of all youth released from adult prisons reoffend, often going on to commit more serious crimes.
We should be putting our youth on precisely the opposite track, toward full re-entry into society.
The opportunity is real: The latest developmental science confirms that the brain is not fully developed until age 25 and is highly susceptible to positive, age-appropriate interventions designed to encourage more responsible choices.
Instead, we subject youth in adult facilities to traumatic conditions that increase their likelihood to reoffend. Youth in adult prison are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon, than those in youth facilities. They face the highest risk of sexual assault of any age group and are frequently placed in solitary confinement.
Overall, youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel. The governor's plan would make New York a national leader on these issues.
Proposed reforms include:
Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18.
Ensuring no youth 16 or 17 years old are placed in adult facilities.
Moving most 16- and 17-year-old defendants to Family Court (and the rest to a new "Youth Part" of the adult system for those accused of more violent crimes).
Expanding alternatives to detention and incarceration to keep youth out of prison if more effective alternatives are available.
Increasing the age for youthful offender status to 21 and broadening eligible crimes, to better address collateral consequences and help more youth become successful adults.
The weeks ahead will be full of public haggling over many areas of the budget. But these sensible reforms should be adopted as they are.
In 2015, the time has come. New Yorkers are ready to raise the age and overhaul the criminal justice system - for the good of our youth and the safety of our communities.
Steven Krokoff is Albany's police chief. Paige Pierce is executive director of Families Together.