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Raising the Age of Criminal Responsibility in New York State

The New York City Bar Association supports raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, as proposed in the 2015-2016 New York State Executive Budget.

The Proposal is based on a report produced by the Commission—comprised of law enforcement, advocates and service providers—appointed by Governor Cuomo to make recommendations on how New York could raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction and make other reforms to improve youth outcomes while increasing community safety.

A City Bar report collaborated on by eight committees notes, “The Commission Report and the Proposal represent a comprehensive approach to reforming the youth justice system. The recommendations came from a thorough study of best practices in New York and across the nation, including the lessons learned from jurisdictions that have successfully raised the age in recent years. The City Bar applauds the work of the Commission and supports the Proposal. We urge its passage this session.”

The Proposal would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 years old, consistent with national norms. Family Court would have original jurisdiction over most youth who were arrested; using current numbers, this would shift approximately 86% of the 16- and 17-year-olds cases to Family Court. However, Criminal Court would retain jurisdiction over youth charged with serious-offense crimes and offense charged under the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Youths retained in adult court would also have additional protections and receive age-appropriate treatment.

The City Bar has previously expressed support for raising the age of criminal responsibility. Citing research supporting the view that adolescent brains do not develop full decision-making capacity until into the mid-20’s, the report notes, “we grounded our support in the following overarching concepts: that raising the age will reduce recidivism; that adult jails are dangerous for youth; that alternatives to incarceration are a more effective and cost-efficient way to reduce youth recidivism than detention and incarceration; that youth charged as adults face an array of collateral consequences that prevent them from moving forward with their lives; and that raising the age will help to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system.”

The Proposal also would create a new Youth Part in the superior court of every county to hear the cases of 16- and 17-year-olds who remain in Criminal Court. Youth Part judges would receive specialized training in adolescent development and research-based recidivism prevention, and would have expanded discretion to remove cases to Family Court, or retain cases in the Youth Part but apply all of the provisions and protections of the Family Court Act. The Department of Probation will conduct a risk and needs assessment of all youth who are not detained, and provide referrals to appropriate evidence-based services.

The Proposal would also ensure that no youth under the age of 18 are detained in adult jails, regardless of whether they are in Family or Criminal Court. Additionally, consistent with research showing that when low-risk youth are more deeply involved in the justice system they are more likely to reoffend, the legislation contains several provisions to increase diversion from courts and from detention and placement.

As a first step toward incorporating this understanding into the justice system, notes the report, the Proposal expands the eligibility for a youthful offender adjudication—which replaces convictions and makes the court records confidential—to youth under age 21. The Proposal also provides that the court records for all youth who are eligible for a youthful offender adjudication (except those charged with sex offenses) will be confidential while the case is pending and that the proceedings can be held confidentially upon request. The State has also committed to bearing the costs associated with raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction.

As the report concludes, “the City Bar believes the reasons for raising the age for the crimes identified in the Proposal are equally applicable to all crimes. We hope that after the Proposal is fully implemented and demonstrating success, the Legislature will see fit to amend the law so that it includes all crimes.”

The report may be read here: http://bit.ly/1BLMWCh