At Last: New York Remembers the Adolescence of its Juveniles Offenders
On April 10th of this year, New York became the 49th state to pass legislation ending the treatment of 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie touted the bill’s passage as a “tremendous victory for communities across the state that have endured senseless tragedies and called on the Legislature to deliver a justice system that recognizes the difference between a child and an adult.” While New York was one of only two states to continue to prosecute these juveniles as adults, the Assembly had been working to pass similar legislation for over 12 years.
The prosecution of juveniles in adult criminal court has been proven to have serious lifelong consequences. The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, before juveniles mature they often lack impulse control and the ability to anticipate and understand the consequences of their actions. Adolescents tend to be receptive to interventions, responding well to juvenile treatment and services by learning to make responsible choices and ending delinquent behavior. Studies show that youth offenders prosecuted and sentenced in the adult criminal justice system are 34% more likely to be re-arrested than juveniles who are charged in the youth justice system. In addition to the impact that the adult criminal justice system has on the juvenile’s future behavior, youth offenders detained in adult prisons are more likely to be beaten by staff, sexually assaulted, 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon, and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide while detained.
New York’s Raise the Age bill has multiple facets. Under the new legislation, 16 and 17 year olds accused of misdemeanors will be sent to Family Court. Felony cases, however, will remain in adult criminal court in a new section called the “youth part,” which will house judges trained in Family Court law. After 30 days, 16 and 17 year olds charged with nonviolent felonies will be sent to Family Court unless a district attorney has proven that there are “extraordinary circumstances” that warrant the juvenile’s retention in the adult criminal system. The term “extraordinary circumstances” is undefined in the new law, although Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel, has stated his belief that it will be widely understood to mean “remarkable, exceptional, amazing, astounding, incredible.” Those juveniles charged with violent felonies may also be transferred to Family Court if they pass a three-part test. The test balances whether the victim sustained significant physical injury, the accused used a weapon, and whether the perpetrator engaged in criminal sexual conduct.
The bill also changes the rules regarding the detention of juveniles. After the horrible details surrounding the arrest and detention of Kalief Browder became public knowledge, there was a powerful push for juvenile detention reform. Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old kid living in the Bronx in 2010 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Mr. Browder never faltered in his denial of guilt, despite this he was detained on Rikers Island for 3 years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement, without charges. The time spent on Rikers, replete with assaults by guards and inmates, solitary confinement, and awaiting a trial that never came affected his mental state in ways that would be expected of anyone, let alone a teenager. Two years after his release from Rikers Island, Mr. Browder committed suicide and became a household name reflecting the horrors of the criminal justice system for the youth of New York. The Raise the Age legislation, signed by Governor Cuomo with Kalief Browder’s brother, Akeem, looking on, is an attempt to prevent a tragedy such as this from ever occurring again. Beginning October 1st, 2018, offenders under 18 will no longer be held at Rikers Island and those 17 years old will no longer be held in county jails, a similar rule will be enforced for those under 18 a year later.
Despite victory for proponents of the bill, many are disappointed in the newly passed legislation. Last year alone, 3,445 juveniles were charged with violent felonies and therefore would still have been prosecuted in the “youth part” of the adult criminal system. Those adolescents will continue to receive lengthy prison stays and lifetime criminal records. Kevin Parker, a State Senator from Brooklyn, voiced his consternation at how complicated this bill became, “[a]ll we had to simply do is say that we’re going to take 16- and 17-year-olds and we’re going to treat them just like 15-year-olds. That’s all we had to do, right? All we had to do. And we messed that up.”
While New York’s bill may not be perfect, it will give many young offenders an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and become law-abiding adults. Over 17,000 adolescents aged 16 and 17 are accused of misdemeanors each year, under the new bill these charges will be heard in family court where judges are trained to know what is best for the adolescent offender and have more access to social services that may help rehabilitate rather than strictly penalize this vulnerable community. The change in detention facility alone will mean the difference between a mistake and lifetime behavior for many, for some it will mean the difference between life and death. A staunch supporter of the original bill, Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island, made it clear that the fight to raise the age for adult criminal liability is far from over. “For those who don’t think it goes far enough, I will remind you: We are not dropping off the end of the earth tonight. Laws are made to amend them.”
Alexandra Raymond is from Vergennes, Vermont and graduated from New York University in 2014 with a B.A. in Sociology and Law & Society. She is expected to earn her Juris Doctor from Boston University School of Law in 2018. Alexandra will be working for an investment management firm in Boston during the summer of 2017 and will then spend her next semester studying international law at Leiden Law School in the Netherlands. Upon graduation, Alexandra hopes to pursue a career that allows her to explore her interests in business, social justice, and international law.