New York will no longer treat many 16- and 17-year old offenders as adults.
Aren’t those already in the system worthy of a second look?
New York took an enlightened step in criminal justice last year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation raising the age at which young people are treated as adults to 18 from now on. But what of those already behind bars?
They deserve a second look, and a timely one. It shouldn’t take years to fix the mistakes of the past.
Until last April, New York and North Carolina were the only states to still treat 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults. That meant their cases routinely went to criminal court. If found guilty, the teens were sentenced as adults, sent to adult prisons, and given a permanent criminal record unless they were granted youthful offender status.
Both New York and North Carolina took significant steps to end that practice last year. New York is phasing in the change, generally for nonviolent offenders, and will fully raise what’s called the age of criminal responsibility to 18 as of Oct. 1, 2019. Younger defendants covered by the law will be handled in family court, where they might be put on probation and into programs aimed at getting their lives back on track. The state will also stop sending young people to adult prisons.
The change — from a practice started in 1909 — reflected an understanding that teenage brains are not fully developed, and a recognition that minority youth are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
But this laudable new law is not retroactive. It doesn’t address current inmates who committed their crimes at 16 or 17. That’s fundamentally unfair; it’s like doing a long sentence for a crime even after society has decided it doesn’t merit so many years behind bars.
Right now, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision says there are 66 16- and 17-year-olds in its custody; the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national group that had fought to raise the age, estimates that perhaps 4,000 to 5,000 inmates, including older ones, entered at 16 or 17. Because most young inmates aren’t in for violent crimes and the vast majority are out by 25 years of age, we’re likely talking about some hundreds of young, nonviolent offenders who under the news law might not be behind bars at all.
The state is, of course, under no obligation to revisit their cases, but just because it doesn’t have to doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. The governor should order a review, with a focus on inmates who might, under the new law, have never gone to prison at all, and who have demonstrated they’re good candidates for release.
Although pardons are available for those convicted at 16 or 17, they’re only for those who meet certain conditions, one of which is that at least 10 years must have passed since the conviction. The governor, however, may commute sentences as he sees fit, as governors often do around the holiday season.
Justice for people who in these more enlightened times would get a break seems a pretty good reason. And right now, not some Christmas future, seems a good time.
Original story on Times Union: