New York Raises the Age of Adult Criminal Responsibility

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie today announced the SFY 17-18 budget agreement will include provisions to enact the Assembly Majority’s longstanding goal to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in the State of New York.

“We have won a tremendous victory for communities across the state that have endured senseless tragedies and called on the Legislature to deliver a justice system that recognizes the difference between a child and an adult,” said Heastie. “This is the beginning of a new chapter in New York State where young people are given a chance to grow up and recover from their past wrongdoing without forfeiting their futures.”

Before this landmark change, New York was one of only two states in the nation, the other being North Carolina, that prosecutes all 16 and 17 year-old offenders in adult criminal court where they face the same sentences as adults. For more than 12 years, the Assembly has advanced legislation to remove these cases from the criminal court in light of research illustrating the social and psychological detriments of the practice.

Under the new law, cases involving 16 and 17 year-old defendants would be adjudicated as follows:

  • Civil violation charges, such as open container violations and possession of small amounts of marijuana, as well as misdemeanors under the Vehicle and Traffic Law, such as DWIs, would continue to be handled in the local court;
  • All misdemeanor charges under the the Penal Law would be handled in Family Court;
  • All felony charges would begin in a newly established Youth Part of the criminal court, presided over by a Family Court judge, where offenders would have access to additional intervention services and programming;
  • Non-violent felony charges would be transferred to Family Court, unless the district attorney makes a motion and demonstrates extraordinary circumstances that justify retaining the case in the Youth Part of the criminal court;
  • Violent felony charges would remain in the Youth Part of the criminal court and be subject to a three-part test that weighs the seriousness of the offense to determine whether the case will be eligible for presumptive removal to Family Court;
  • Juvenile cases not eligible for removal will be treated as adults for sentencing purposes, though the court will be directed to consider the defendant’s age when imposing a sentence of incarceration.

In light of the serious incidents that have resulted from the detention of juveniles on Rikers Island and other correctional facilities in the state, the new law will establish the following schedule for the removal of juveniles from county jails: October 1, 2018 for offenders under the age of 17 and October 1, 2019 for offenders under the age of 18. When detention is necessary, they will be held in local youth detention facilities certified and regulated by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). Juveniles convicted in the Youth Part and sentenced to state prison will be incarcerated in an adolescent offender facility operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision with programs provided by OCFS.

A widely recognized obstacle for past offenders in their efforts to move on and live independent, law-abiding lives is the “scarlet letter” of criminality that follows them post-conviction and incarceration. Other than a limited ability to have certain drug offenses sealed following court ordered treatment, there is currently no opportunity for persons with non-violent criminal convictions to ever have their records sealed. The stigma of a criminal record causes severe collateral consequences such as the inability to access educational and employment opportunities, housing and other vital services. Under the reforms announced today, a defendant of any age who is convicted of certain non-violent offenses could apply to the court for a sealing of their record after a 10-year waiting period following the completion of their sentence.

Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, Chair of the Codes Committee said, “The Assembly Majority has worked for over a decade to right the fundamental wrongs in a criminal justice system that ignores the vulnerability of our young people. There is an increasing recognition that adolescents are immature and impulsive and in the age of social media, it is more likely than ever that their actions will land them on the wrong side of the law. It is unconscionable that they should be forced into a system that focuses on punishment instead of fostering the potential of the offender. We must accept the science and acknowledge that every child that commits a crime is not a criminal. This long-awaited reform will move these cases to family court where they belong and allow young people to receive the age-appropriate treatment they deserve. The sealing of records provided for in this measure is the single-greatest chance we can give young offenders to recover from their mistakes and move on with their lives as independent, law-abiding citizens.”

Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, Chair of the Judiciary Committee said, “There are innumerable reasons why young people commit crimes and many of them require a range of intervention services. Creating pathways for youthful offenders to access appropriate alternatives to incarceration through family court is an important step in curbing recidivism.”

Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry said, “There is overwhelming medical and psychological evidence proving that 16 and 17 year olds do not have the same faculties as adults in matters of criminality. The practice of treating juveniles as adults in the criminal justice system has caused irreparable damage to their development and any prospects they may have had for successful and law-abiding futures. This legislation takes meaningful steps to steer a more appropriate and effective course of action for the treatment of juveniles by police and the courts. It also enacts important measures for the sealing of records so that young people who make mistakes early in life will no longer have their potential for achievement anchored down by the weight of these minor offenses.”

Assemblymember Phil Ramos said, “The steps we have taken today to reform the criminal justice system will go a long way to ensure that young people who make mistakes are not unfairly swept into the same category as violent criminals. It serves the best interests of all communities to reform those individuals who, with support and age-appropriate treatment, have the potential to achieve law-abiding and successful futures.”

Assemblymember Nick Perry, Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus said, “As lawmakers, we have an obligation to use every measure of information available to us when shaping the policies that impact the lives and futures of so many young people. Though we have struggled to find an appropriate response for criminal behavior among teenagers, we cannot ignore the fact that they are not adults. Research continues to show that they lack the ability to fully weigh their actions against their responsibility to society. The U.S. Supreme Court and forty-eight other states have recognized these facts and New York has been left behind to the detriment of our young people and their families. These reforms will put us on the right side of progress and ensure that future generations will not be crippled by the ineffective and outdated practice of blind punishment without understanding. This legislation will give more than just a second chance to young New Yorkers who will now have the opportunity to move forward without the label of ‘criminal’ holding them back.”