Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision last week to grant conditional pardons for more than 100 individuals convicted of crimes during their teens was a generous and compassionate act.
But it should only be the start of the state’s efforts to reform the way it treats youths charged with non-violent and low-level crimes.
Those efforts should include raising the state’s age of criminal responsibility in order to keep youths from the ravages of adult prisons and developing more programs to help youthful offenders lead productive adult lives.
Cuomo on Friday issued 101 conditional pardons to non-violent offenders convicted of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies when they were age 16 or 17.
The pardons were granted only to individuals who had gone a full 10 years without being convicted of another crime and who had led productive lives during that time. The pardons, which clear the individuals of having an adult criminal record, can be rescinded if the individual reoffends.
Clearing these people of their convictions will help remove the social stigma of an adult criminal record, as well as remove a major barrier to employment, higher education, housing and an overall better quality of life.
According to Cuomo when he announced his initiative a year ago, as many as 10,000 individuals in the state find themselves in similar circumstances. Conditional pardons for these individuals must be issued as well, so as to grant them the same opportunity for a second chance.
But the pardons are just one action the state needs to take.
To prevent the need for such pardons in the first place, the state needs to raise the age of criminal responsibility — the age at which individuals can be sent to adult prison for crimes — from the current age of 16 to 18. Only two states in the country, New York and North Carolina, send 16- and 17-year-olds to adult prison for non-violent crimes and low-level felonies.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility will accomplish several goals.
Alternative sentences such as allowing certain youthful offenders to enter rehabilitation programs, do community service and serve time in youth facilities will help ensure that these youths don’t become career adult criminals, which is often the result when they’re sent to prison with hardened adult criminals.
The move will also save state taxpayers millions of dollars in incarceration and rehabilitation costs for youthful offenders. The savings will be offset in part by the need for new youth incarceration centers and to adapt the court system to process the younger offenders.
But the costs will be worth it to these individuals and society in the long run. Rehabilitated teens are more likely to turn their lives around, get jobs and become productive adults. That’s not some namby-pamby bleeding-heart-liberal fantasy. It’s backed up by statistics and real-life examples.
Gov. Cuomo’s action relating to these youthful offenders should signal the beginning of a new approach to addressing youth crime that will help misguided individuals get a new lease on life and protect society from a new generation of criminals.