NYC Coed Killing Raises Fears of Backlash Against ‘Raise the Age’ Laws

bill signing

NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs Raise the Age legislation in the spring of 2017, alongside Akeem Browder, the brother of former Riker’s detainee Kalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide caused international outcry about the danger of holding youth in adult jails. Photo courtesy Chronicle of Social Change

The stabbing death of Barnard student Tessa Majors, who was attacked in a New York City park last week by youths, including some as young as 13 or 14, has raised fears of a backlash against New York’s two-year-old law which raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

“With cases like this, there’s always a risk that the reaction of the public is set by the the political reaction, and that they use these cases to make changes to the policy and to the jurisprudence,” Jeffrey A. Butts, the director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Voters and elected officials who opposed campaigns such as raise the age might use the  case as an example for a need to maintain tougher approaches on youth crime, he said.

In 1978, 15-year-old Willie Bosket shot and killed two New York men in robberies. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison, the longest sentence allowed. The public outcry at the time ushered in the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978, which made some juveniles as young as 13 punishable as adults.

The “Willie Bosket Law” served as a model for the nation’s harder approach to juvenile crime–and it was not until the “raise the Age” laws passed in New York and other states that the strategy began to change.

The new laws was grounded in research by psychologists and behavioral experts showing that adolescents’ brains are not fully developed enough to hold them accountable for their actions in the same way as adults.

Majors, an 18-year-old Barnard freshman, was killed in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights, in a park near the Barnard-Columbia University campus. Allegations by the NYC Police Union head that she was in the park to buy marijuana brought a furious reaction from her family and New York City mayor  Bill de Blasio.

Charges against a 13-year-old boy in the case are likely in court Tuesday.

Hardliners have been quick to seize on the case as an example of why Raise the Age laws are misguided.

“If you’re old enough to make the decision to carry a knife, set out to mug some1 & then decide to murder them during the act of robbing them, you’re not a child, you’re a full blown killer. In cases like this, I wish capital punishment age could be lowered,” Twitter user AAARPGodess wrote.

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