LETTER: Raise the Age for Juvenile Offenders

On May 15th, George McDonald sent the following open letter to the New York State Legislature, advocating for change in the way juveniles are prosecuted in the criminal justice system.

An Open Letter to the New York State Legislature:

We all understand the moral arguments against prosecuting and incarcerating children as adults. History will surely judge us by whether we help or harm young offenders; and it is impossible to reconcile our Constitution’s prohibition against cruel punishment with the disturbing, often violent outcomes for young people held in adult facilities in New York State.

For thirty years, my wife Harriet and I have served the formerly incarcerated and homeless. Thousands and thousands of times we’ve heard, first hand, how a brush with the criminal justice system sets a life-long cycle of poverty, drug use, and recidivism into motion. Even when an offender is an adult, with an appropriate sentence in a well-run facility, the unintended consequences of incarceration affect their lives and their family’s lives, forever.

For children— and they are children, with minds still growing and developing— the full weight of our criminal justice system is crushing. A single mistake, even a misdemeanor, can be life ending: the Campaign for Youth Justice points out that suicide rates among young people in adult prisons are 36 times higher than in juvenile facilities.
But there is another side to this argument which hasn’t been discussed. What does incarcerating children as adults mean for our collective future? What are the implications for the rest of New York State— its people, its economy?

The mass incarceration of adults has dealt our country a crippling blow which we are only beginning to fully appreciate. The Governor’s Council on Community Reentry and Reintegration, which I am proud to serve on, was formed in part to address this crisis: a coming wave of millions of people returning home from prison, with few if any prospects. If we don’t provide a path for them, with economic opportunity and mobility paving the way, the cost of their incarceration will far exceed the terms of their sentences for taxpayers.

For young people released after serving time in adult prisons, the economic consequences to the state will last even longer and cut much deeper. Their descent into homelessness, poverty, mental illness and drug use will begin as soon as they’re released. And New York State taxpayers will bear the ultimate financial responsibility for their ruined lives.

With recidivism rates as high as 80 percent for young offenders, our system is manufacturing criminals far more quickly than it reforms them. And we are disabling our own economy by pumping millions of dollars into a machine that destroys young lives, instead of investing in them.

I urge you to seize the opportunity provided by Governor Cuomo to safeguard the lives of our children and the future of our state’s economy. Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 and ensure that no more young people are subjected to a destructive, expensive, ill-fitting system. The longer we wait, the further out of reach prosperity becomes: for them, for their communities, and for our state as a whole.


George T. McDonald

Founder and President

The Doe Fund

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS. The organization's flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.