Testimony to the New York City Council


Jeffrey A. Butts, Ph.D.
Director, Research and Evaluation Center (www.JohnJayREC.nyc)
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York
524 West 59th Street, Suite BMW605
New York, NY 10019

to the

Committee on Justice System
Jointly with the Committee on Juvenile Justice


T2018-1640 and Res 0283-2018

NYC’s Preparedness to “Raise the Age” of Family Court Jurisdiction

April 18, 2018
Committee Room – City Hall

Good afternoon.
My name is Jeffrey Butts and I am director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York. (1)

I would like to thank the Chair and other members of the Council for the opportunity to speak today about the quality of interventions for justice-involved young people in New York City and the important developments made possible by the State’s Raise the Age legislation.

I live and work in New York, but before coming to the City in 2010, I worked in and around the youth services and youth justice systems of Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. If you include all my research projects, I have worked with officials and agencies in more than half the States in the country and several other countries as well.

New York State’s Raise the Age legislation is an important opportunity to improve public safety, but it is just that – an opportunity. The success of Raise the Age depends on the efforts of every partner in the larger justice system, from police, to prosecutors, probation agencies, and the broad network of service providers who work with youth to keep them from becoming more deeply involved in the justice system.

One of the most important components in the youth justice system–although one that affects relatively few youth overall–is pretrial, secure custody and short-term dispositional sentences. In most States, this function is called “juvenile detention.”

Before the passage of Raise the Age, the detention of New York City youth ages 16 and 17 was managed by the Department of Correction and youth were held on Rikers Island. Fortunately, this practice is coming to an end.

But, your work is far from done. The success of Raise the Age depends on City Government and this Council.

Of course, you could choose not to make the effort.

If you want to recreate past mistakes and operate a costly and ineffective youth detention system, I can recommend 4 great strategies.

  1. Exercise very little control or oversight on the uses of secure detention. Just allow individual prosecutors and judges to decide which youth should be detained.
  2. Allow any facility holding detained youth to deteriorate into a dirty and dangerous place that immediately frightens any youth who walks into it.
  3. Treat juvenile detention facilities like jails and ask the staff to behave like jailers.and most importantly,
  4. Disregard everything we have learned about adolescent development in the past 50 years and simply assume that the best way to control youth behavior is force, violence, and a systematic process of dehumanization.

All of these strategies can be implemented just as effectively after the full implementation of Raise the Age. Simply put, there is nothing magical about changing the age of family court jurisdiction that guarantees a safe and effective approach to youth justice.

Reducing youth crime and safeguarding public safety is a complicated business. Public safety is best protected when the youth justice system places a high priority on working with young people in their own communities, and when the efforts of courts and children’s services are coordinated with prevention agencies, schools, social services, neighborhood organizations, and faith-based groups. The most effective youth justice system offers a broad menu of interventions, managed collaboratively and across sectors.

In such a system, the period of time a youth is held in detention is just the beginning of a more expansive and imaginative intervention strategy.

When we confine youth in detention, it is easy to assume that we are protecting the community, but we are actually not doing so. The effects of confinement are short-term and they do nothing to improve the chances that justice-involved young people will turn their lives around.

Confinement by itself does nothing to change behavior.

The active ingredients in behavior change are actually people, relationships, and the experiences and opportunities youth gain during confinement.

Six years ago, the National Academies of Science assembled an expert panel to review the implications of neuroscience and behavioral science for youth justice. (I was honored to be a member of that panel.) In our final report, we asserted the following key lessons
(some citations omitted from original):

“Current empirical evidence from the behavioral sciences suggests that adolescents differ from adults and children in three important ways that lead to differences in behavior. First, adolescents lack mature capacity for self-regulation in emotionally charged contexts, relative to adults and children. Second, adolescents have a heightened sensitivity to proximal external influences, such as peer pressure and immediate incentives, relative to adults. Third, adolescents show less ability to make judgments and decisions that require future orientation. … One can conclude from the body of behavioral and brain studies that adolescents clearly differ from adults in crucial ways that suggest the need for a different response from the justice system.” (2)

I suggest that this different response should be a careful and intense focus on the experiences youth have each and every day they are held in a secure facility as well as the people they encounter during that time and how those people treat them.

In youth justice, the people are the intervention; not the buildings.


(1) Views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the City University of New York, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, or any of their sponsors and funding partners.

(2) Bonnie, Richard J., Robert L. Johnson, Betty M. Chemers, and Julie A. Schuck (Editors) (2013). Reforming juvenile justice: A developmental approach, page 91. Washington, DC: National Research Council of the National Academies.