Albany passes Raise the Age law but ‘more work to be done,’ advocacy group says

The Raise the Age law, signed Monday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, means 16- and 17-year-olds will no longer be prosecuted as criminals.

Instead, the majority of the cases will be diverted to Family Court or to judges with access to social services and special training.

New York was previously one of only two states in the nation that automatically processed all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, no matter their offense.

Cuomo visited Coxsackie Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility for men, in 2015 to promote the change in the law, dubbing it “Raising the Age.”

“Raise the Age is more than just 16- and 17-year-olds,” Cuomo said at a press conference Monday. “It says, look, let’s stop the cycle of taking 16- and 17-year-olds in trouble, giving them a criminal record and then you put them in a facility with hardened criminals and you’re surprised when they come out with more problems than when they went in.”

The program, which was included in the state’s budget, will cost $110 million each year, according to the governor’s office. Those funds will provide more support for increased traffic in Family Courts, social services programs and training to court professionals, according to the state.

Juvenile offenders confined in adult facilities face a greater risk of becoming the victims of a significant assault, being a victim of sexual violence and suicide, according to the state.

Greene County Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, who has a Ph.D. in criminal justice, said she is glad New York is keeping up with what other states have done.

“I certainly think from best practices point of view, there is a lot of research that indicates keeping young people from being further immersed in the criminal justice system reduces recidivism and has better outcomes in terms of reducing crime,” she said. “These efforts to rethink the system and move away from mass incarceration are important and can be done without compromising public safety.”

Youth who are processed as adults have higher rate of being convicted of more crimes in the future than those processed as juveniles. It is estimated that raising the age of criminal responsibility will prevent between 1,500 and 2,400 crimes every five years, according to the state.

“By raising the age of criminal responsibility, this legislation will reduce crime, recidivism and costs to the state, and help us deliver on the New York promise to advance social justice and affirm our core progressive values,” Cuomo said in a press release. “Providing young people with age-appropriate facilities and rehabilitation will restore hope and promise and help them turn their lives around to build a better future for themselves, their families and for our great state.”

The law could have the biggest impact on 16- and 17-year-olds of color. Black and Hispanic youth make up 33 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds statewide, but 72 percent of all arrests, according to the state.

SBK Social Justice Center, a local advocacy group which regularly aims to provide opportunities for people of color in Hudson, applauded the state’s move.

“This is a huge step in the right direction for young defendants,” said Cedric Fulton, a director of community engagement for the Community Justice Advocacy Program at SBK. “This is a landmark decision to send 16- and 17-year-olds to family court. But, there is still more work to be done in this field and in how we treat teens in the justice system.”

Under the plan, young people will no longer be permitted to be housed in adult facilities or jails. The plan will be rolled out in stages; the raising of the age of juvenile delinquency from age 16- to 17-years-old beginning Oct. 1, 2018, and the raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 on Oct. 1, 2019.

Lt. Adam Brainard of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office said he doesn’t see the law having a major impact on operations.

“We don’t see a large volume of crimes that are associated with that age group, but it will have an impact in the different ways we go about those cases from here on out,” Brainard said. “It means we will be working with the probation department more. The courts and probation systems will see the biggest amounts of change but mostly law enforcement is still going to investigate cases the same way it has in the past.”

Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley said he does not see how raising the age will help.

“I wish they would have left it [the age] where it was,” he said. “I personally feel if you are brought up by your parents the right way and taught right from wrong at the age of 17 or 18 years old you should have a good grip on what’s right or wrong. If you go out and commit a crime it doesn’t matter, age 18 or 54, you should be held accountable for what’s wrong.”

A Raise the Age implementation task force will be created, with committee members designated by the governor. Additionally, individuals who have been crime-free for 10 years after serving a sentence will be able to apply for the sealing of previous criminal convictions.

When asked, residents in Columbia and Greene counties walking along the main thoroughfares Wednesday said they were generally in favor of the law.

Greenville resident Tim Schmidt was in support of raising the age. Schmidt said there would be less recidivism if 17- and 18-year-olds were dealt with in the family court system than adult courts.

“I don’t see why we were putting kids in jail with career criminals in the first place,” he said.

Bill DeLuca, of Catskill, said he was in favor of not trying teens as adults, but said there might be problems with how it plays out.

“Like every piece of legislation, it’s all about the implementation,” he said.

He questioned what type of burdens the new measure would place on local family courts and probation departments, both of which would have to deal with a large number of new defendants.

“I can just hear the counties screaming ‘unfunded mandate,’” he said.

Clair Jackson, of Red Hook, said she was unsure if trying all 16- and 17-year-olds in family court was a good idea.

“I think it depends on the severity of the crime,” she said. For instance, teenagers accused of murder should be tried in adult court, she said.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616, ext. 2500, or email or tweet to @amandajpurcell.

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