Raise the Age could fall to political calculations: Editorial

“Leaders must come up with an agreement because the status quo is unfair, inequitable and unsustainable.

All the key players are touting their support for raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York. The governor, the Assembly and even the various Senate leaders say they support trying to help, instead of punish, those who commit a nonviolent crime at age 16 or 17.

This should be a promising development, as New York is one of only two states that push 16-year-olds into adult courts and one of only nine that do so with 17-year-olds. Senate Republicans have blocked legislation to  “Raise the Age” to 18 since 2012, apparently afraid to look “soft on crime.”

Despite consensus that something must be done, there are major differences in what Raise the Age legislation should look like, and how such goals should be met.

Sadly, the split over methodology could end up shelving this important legislation for yet another year. The cost of failing to finally raise the age of criminal responsibility this year? Some 28,000 more young lives sunk into an unforgiving adult criminal justice system.

Legislation championed by the governor, Assembly and mainstream Democrats in the Senate would shift these teens into the Family Court system, where the focus is on remediation and support services for youthful offenders and their families. But Republican Senate leaders — and the Independent Democratic Conference that enables them — lean toward a half-measure. They want these kids’ cases still heard in the adult Criminal Courts,  but in a special Adolescent Diversion Program that mimics Family Court, but isn’t Family Court.

In fact, the Adolescent Diversion Program was developed because New York hadn’t raised the age of criminal responsibility. But there are only a handful of such programs around the state, meaning that many more would have to be created. The Family Court system already knows how to achieve the goals that should be sought for 16- and 17-year-old offenders — ensuring that they are allowed to contact their parents and parents can be present during interrogation, keeping them segregated from adults in the jail system, and providing a pathway to expunge their criminal records, which otherwise can haunt them for decades.

The “hybrid” alternative of using Adolescent Diversion Programs smacks of a political calculation. Senate Republicans can claim the “tough on crime” mantle while Senate IDC members get to tout their “progressive” credentials.

The IDC has so far failed to introduce its own bill. IDC Leader Jeff Klein bent over backwards during a Feb. 21 roundtable discussion in Ossining to tout the concept of keeping kids under the Criminal Court umbrella, even as various children’s advocates assured him that Family Court could handle the caseloads, and would bring the kind of expertise needed to ensure key support for youth and families.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins questioned the Criminal Court option. “This is a different thing. This is not Raise the Age,” she told the Editorial Board. “We can’t just keep pretending that anything is better than nothing.”

If the various legislative leaders cannot agree on how Raise the Age would be implemented, there will be no change. But they must come up with an agreement because the status quo is unfair, inequitable and unsustainable.

The Senate IDC can live up to its “progressive” rhetoric by supporting a Family Court solution. There’s time to hone a compromise that specifically addresses any concerns. Surely, the legislative leadership and the governor can craft legislation that maps out how violent offenders are treated, and outlines what kind of resources are added to Family Court, along with money to pay for it.

No matter how the specifics unfold, though, New York must raise the age of criminal responsibility this year. New York is now one of the least progressive states in the nation when it comes to dealing with teenagers accused of nonviolent crimes. Forcing 16- and 17-year-olds into the adult court system produces career criminals and enormous costs for taxpayers. Another year cannot go by without a remedy.

Who pays the cost when the perfect becomes the enemy of the good; when a fair system for youthful offenders is stalled for yet another year? Overwhelmingly young men of color, whose futures are sunk before their adulthood even begins.”

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