Albany Times Union Op-Ed: Raise the age; help turn around a troubled young life
“We don’t think that’s good public policy because in essence what they’re trying to do is absolve people from violent and heinous and felonious crimes.”
These were the comments of state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan earlier this year about a proposal by the governor to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 years old. Like last year, the Legislature has yet to pass the bill.
Unfortunately for thousands of young people and the state of New York, Flanagan’s summary of the proposal was dangerously incorrect. And it seems more than a few lawmakers share his misunderstanding.
But there is still time left in the legislative session to correct the error so that New York can finally take advantage of the benefits of this smart-on-crime policy, like Connecticut and others have enjoyed.
Let’s set the record straight: The governor’s proposal does not change much when it comes to “violent and heinous crimes” committed by 16- and 17-year-olds. These cases would continue to be prosecuted in adult courts and face the same sentencing parameters. Minors accused of these charges, however, would not be held in adult facilities, like Rikers, where they face tremendous risks — a reform that is not at all controversial.
Where the proposal does make significant changes to how courts handle young people — and how raising the age would make a tremendous, positive difference — is with lower-level offenses that are now often ignored by the adult court system. Each one of those cases is a missed opportunity to turn around a troubled life.
Since 2012, when comprehensive legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility was first introduced in New York, more than 130,000 16- and 17-year-olds have been arrested statewide. Seventy-four percent of these arrests were for misdemeanors, like petty theft and marijuana possession. Forty percent of those cases resulted in an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, where the court effectively said, “Stay out of trouble for a while and this case will go away.”
But the judges granting these dismissals to 16- and 17-year-olds do not know much about the youth before them, and the adult criminal court system is not designed to assess individuals’ risks or needs, nor to make referrals for services based on the results of such an assessment. The Family Court system, however, can.
If New York were to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old, these dismissed cases would receive much more thorough and rigorous treatment. Even before appearing in court, a 16- or 17-year-old arrested for a low-level offense would meet with a probation officer who would conduct an intake interview with the youth to assess his or her needs and background. The probation officer would meet with the youth’s family and the complainant, and, based on the findings, the youth could be offered an opportunity to participate in a process designed to resolve the issues that led to the arrest, without having to go to court.
If this swift response worked, the case would end there. If it did not (if the youth fails to comply or if the complainant objects), the case would go to the Family Court where a judge informed of the youth’s risks, needs and background would make a sentencing decision, taking into consideration the needs and best interests of the youth as well as protection of the community.
This is what a smart-on-crime policy looks like. It offers an opportunity to intervene early and prevent future crime, future victims and future incarceration. And this is what New York is missing by remaining one of only two states in the entire nation to set the age of criminal responsibility at 16 years old.
Before the Legislature heads home for the summer, it must pass Cuomo’s proposal and bring New York’s criminal justice policy into the 21st century.
Ashley Cannon is director of public policy of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. Yuval Sheer, a lawyer, is a member of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Children and the Law.
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