Teen inmates to be moved off Rikers amid push for age-appropriate policies

New York City will move 16- and 17-year-olds incarcerated on Rikers Island prison to a youth facility in the Bronx, where they can receive more age-appropriate programing.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island is shown in this January photo. The city is moving 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers Island to a youth facility in the Bronx.

Rikers Island jail in New York City will no longer house 16- and 17-year-old inmates, New York City officials said Thursday, announcing a four-year, $300 million plan to move the teens to a youth facility in the Bronx. 

"When you're a teenager in trouble with the law, it's not too late to get on the right path – and we need to provide the right environment to help that happen," Mayor de Blasio said in a statement, according to the NY Daily News. 

The number of teens held on Rikers, most of whom are still awaiting trial, has already dropped over the past few years: from 337 in 2013 to 118 today. New York and North Carolina are the only states that automatically try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. 

The proposed move comes a year and a half after Rikers announced it would no longer put inmates under age 21 in solitary confinement, citing research that suggests they are particularly susceptible to long-term effects. 

In 2014, an investigation at Rikers found that teen inmates were consistently abused. 

The new plan to house them separately was praised by reform advocates.

"As someone who spent time on Rikers as a 16 year old, I firmly believe that the practice of incarcerating hundreds of children on an isolated island, with poor accessibility and far from public view, is a failed model," Glenn Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA, an incarceration-reform organization, told the New York Daily News. 

The move is a "necessary first step in reevaluating the proper treatment of youth involved in the criminal justice system," Mr. Martin added. 

Between 2001 and 2013, the juvenile incarceration rate has dropped by half, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in November. The trend has been attributed, in part, to a decrease in violent juvenile crime, but also states' increasing willingness to consider other forms of punishment for teens who break the law. Increased research on adolescent neuroscience and decisionmaking has helped raise interest in more appropriate criminal justice policies. 

"I think once you have a 12-year trend, it sort of feels like it's not just a blip," Jake Horowitz, state policy director for Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, told the Monitor at the time. 

"There's research now that shows that young people, even up to age 25, make different decisions, have different thought processes, and are culpably different before the law than other folks," Jason Ziedenberg, director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute, told the Monitor. "I think that's really echoed among policymakers." 

This report contains information from the Associated Press.

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