Rikers Island must remove youthful offenders in 2018 under raise-the-age reform

ALBANY — Youthful offenders will have to be removed from Rikers Island no later than Oct. 1 of 2018 under a provision of the state’s emerging budget, the Daily News has learned.

The provision — part of a package of criminal justice reforms that would raise New York’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 — requires 16-and 17-year-old offenders to be removed from Rikers by April 1, 2018 “if practicable” and no later than Oct. 1, lawmakers said. Youths would then be housed at local detention centers.

“This is something that I think is going to go a long way toward rehabilitating these people instead of incarcerating them,” Bronx Sen Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, said of the reforms.

Klein estimated that the Rikers Island provision would impact about 150 youthful inmates currently housed at the facility.

A spokesman for Mayor de Blasio did not immediately respond to a request for comment. City Hall has already announced plans to shutter Rikers Island within 10 years.

News of the Rikers Island provision came as lawmakers and Gov. Cuomo on Wednesday afternoon struggled to put the finishing touches on the state’s 2017-2018 budget.

While the GOP-controlled state Senate began passing some budget bills Tuesday night, negotiations on some measures, including the raise-the-age package — dragged on throughout the day Wednesday as officials haggled over last-minute language issues.

 One sticking point being worked out involved who would run the detention centers that would house 16-and 17-year-olds — the corrections department or the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.
Under the reform package, minors facing misdemeanor charges would be tried in Family Court. Youths charged with non-violent felonies would have their cases begin in a specially created “youth section” of Criminal Court with the presumption that they would eventually be transferred to Family Court unless a district attorney can prove “extraordinary circumstances.”

Violent felony charges would remain in the youth section of Criminal Court so long as the case meets one of three tests: the juvenile caused significant physical injury or used deadly weapon in furtherance of the crime or engaged in unlawful sexual conduct.

“This law will mean so much to so many young people and their families,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who stressed that raising the age of criminal responsibility was a top priority of Assembly Democrats.

“We have seen firsthand the devastating consequences of families torn apart and lives cut short by an ineffective policy of throwing children into adult prisons for non-violent crimes,” Heastie said.

The raise-the-age provision was a key stumbling block in the state’s budget negotiations and a major factor why lawmakers blew the state’s April 1 deadline for adopting a new spending plan.