NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Every year, nearly 50,000 children arrested, charged and processed in New York are done so as adults, and a new coalition of advocates and lawmakers wants that to change.
The coalition of about two dozen groups launched a statewide public information campaign Thursday to change the way the state handles 16- and 17-year-old defendants, said Jennifer March-Joly, one of the coalition's organizers and the executive director of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York.
"It'll be no surprise to you to hear that this is mostly young people of color that we're talking about," Jamie Koppel, Director of Youth and Education Justice at the New York Children's Defense Fund, told WCBS 880. "The funnel narrows even more to most predominantly impacting young men of color, and most specifically black boys as you get further and further into the prison system."
New York state is only one of two states, North Carolina is the other, that has kept its age of adult criminal responsibility at 16, March-Joly said.
The coalition has gained the support of singer Harry Belafonte, among others. It points to developmental research which has shown that brains don't fully form until age 25, and that adolescent decision-making and behavior are impulsive and lack an appreciation of consequences, March-Joly said.
In 2011, New York's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, proposed sending all nonviolent juvenile offenders to family court, removing prosecutors' discretion over whether to keep those 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court. The state created pilot programs with new criminal courts called Adolescent Diversion Parts, dedicated to handling the cases of those older nonviolent teens, similar to existing drug, mental health and community courts for adults.
Through April, 3,317 adolescents have been diverted to the pilot parts in nine New York counties.
But the coalition say that all crimes, not just nonviolent ones, should be handled differently, noting about 75 percent of the some 50,000 annual cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds are misdemeanors.
"For something like jumping a turnstile or for truancy, typically they would be issued a summons and they would then be expected to appear in an adult court, often as much as three months after the fact," said Koppel. "I always say, how many 16-year-olds do you know who carry a calendar and keep track of things like that? So we have lots of young people who are suffering adult consequences for very minor things that they've done."
Organizers say the details of the reform, which courts would handle juvenile cases, how the legislation should be written and who should write it, are still to be determined. The point, they insist, is simple: Children should be treated as children.
"Being tough on crime means being smart on crime,'' Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said in a statement. "Treating children like children is good for the juveniles, good for families, good for communities, good for public safety and just good common sense.''
A bill addressing the change in law would have to be introduced in Albany next session. In North Carolina, a bill that would raise the age a juvenile can be charged as an adult for misdemeanors from 16 to 18 is in committee in the state House.
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