‘Raise the Age’ a victory for juvenile justice, but there’s work to be done: Editorial
New York State has shaken off an inexplicable, regressive stigma by choosing, finally, to treat 16- and 17-year-old defendants differently than adults in our court system. Under “Raise the Age” legislation passed by the state Legislature last month, most of these juvenile defendants will have their cases handled by Family Court, which is far better prepared to deal with their unique developmental and social needs than Criminal Court.
New York has been one of only two states, along with North Carolina, to treat 16-year-olds as adults in Criminal Court — an embarrassment for a state generally regarded as progressive. The many advocates who lobbied hard in Albany for the past few years to erase this taint should be commended, along with state legislators who wouldn’t give up the fight.
As a result, 16-year-old defendants will be treated as “adolescent offenders” starting on Oct. 1, 2018, and 17-year-olds starting one year later. The age of adult criminal responsibility will be raised to 18. Still, as a panel of experts told the Editorial Board, the new system is complex and will require much preparation. Its execution will have to be monitored, as questions and concerns may not be clarified for some time.
Under the new law, all misdemeanor cases, or about 70 percent of cases against 16- and 17-year-olds, will go directly to Family Court. This is a major victory. Right now, these cases are quickly dealt with by Criminal Court. Family Court judges can direct teens who committed minor crimes, and their families, to get counseling or other services. The goal is to prevent future, and possibly more serious, problems.
Juveniles charged with felonies will start off in a new “youth part” of Criminal Court, before judges trained in Family Court law. Most nonviolent cases will be transferred to Family Court within 30 days, unless a district attorney cites “extraordinary circumstances” and seeks to hold the case. Juveniles accused of violent felonies (about 1 percent) could see their cases diverted to regular Criminal Court, if they are accused of seriously injuring a victim, using a weapon, or engaging in criminal sexual conduct.
So much for the new legislation being “soft on crime.”
The new law will also requires that juveniles be detained in facilities only for juveniles while waiting for their cases to be dealt with. No more county jails. And police will not be allowed to interrogate juveniles until their parents or guardians are consulted.
“I think it’s all going to be positive changes,” said Jared Rice, a lawyer who represents juvenile defendants, one of several experts who met with the Editorial Board. “I think some people may be concerned or afraid of how this will turn out. But if you look at case studies from other jurisdictions, you see that recidivism rates are reduced, costs are down and communities become safer.”
The others who met with the board: Kathie Davidson, supervising judge of Family Courts, Ninth Judicial District; Sherri Eisenpress, Rockland County Family Court judge; Paul Noto, Westchester County’s first deputy district attorney; Allison Lake, deputy director of the Westchester Children’s Association; and Christian Philemon, executive director of the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester.
“We are going to be working feverishly for the next year to prepare for this,” Davidson said.
- District attorneys will decide on a case by case basis whether to release nonviolent felonies to Family Court or seek to retain the cases because of “extraordinary circumstances.” Lake noted that advocates will have to monitor these cases, to see if they are handled differently county to county and whether certain populations, like African-American juveniles, are treated differently.
- There is a lack of facilities where juveniles can be detained while their cases are dealt with. The Woodfield Cottage detention facility in Valhalla may have to be expanded, and other facilities will have to be identified. Rockland County has no appropriate facility, and now sends juveniles in the Family Court system as far away as Rochester. A Family Court task force will deal with facilities question, Davidson said.
- Family Courts will need to send 16- and 17-year-olds for community-based services, such as mental health services and drug treatment, and to facilities such as youth shelters and group homes. It’s far from clear that enough of these essential services and facilities are available, or that there will be enough funding to pay for them.
- There may not be enough Family Court judges to staff the new system, Noto said. Many judges will need additional training.
It’s important to note that this new system for dealing with 16- and 17-year-old offenders does not have to be built from scratch. There are some terrific local programs and models that show how juveniles can be counseled and served, so that recidivism is reduced. Among them:
- In 2012, the New York State Court System began piloting an “Adolescent Diversion Program” for 16- and 17-year-olds within Criminal Court at nine locations, including Mount Vernon. The program works with the department of probation, schools and city and private agencies to offer treatment-based services. “We monitor each kid,” said Rice, the program’s lead attorney.
- For 40 years, the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester in Mount Vernon has offered residential treatment to keep juvenile boys and young men out of jail. It provides clinical assessments, education and other services to offenders referred by the courts. The recidivism rate for residents over the past three years was 29 percent, Philemon said.
- The Rockland County Partnership For Safe Youth was launched in 2015, bringing together Social Services, Mental Health, Probation and Rockland BOCES to identify at-risk youth and provides services to keep them out of the court system. “We get parent involvement at the outset,” Eisenpress said.
- The New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children has a “Girls’ Justice Initiative,” to address the needs of at-risk girls and keep them out of the courts. Davidson said this is the kind of focused, tailored approach that the Family Court system needs to take.
New York is now on the right path to dispensing age-appropriate justice to 16- and 17-year-olds. Raising the age of criminal responsibility should lead to lower recidivism rates and safer communities. But this is a work in progress. Advocates, both within and outside the court system, need to track how things play out, both in New York and nationally, so they can cite the need for adjustments. An advantage of being one of the last states to raise the age is that we can see what’s worked, and what hasn’t, in the rest of the country.
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