Ulster DA, sheriff oppose legislation that would raise age of criminal responsibility

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

With New York State moving swiftly towards legislation that would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright on Monday, March 27 sounded a dire warning that the sweeping changes to the state’s juvenile justice system could hinder the prosecution of violent crimes and endanger public safety.

Carnright’s press conference at the County Office Building in Kingston came as elected officials in Albany are negotiating “raise the age” legislation as part of the state budget process. Currently there are two versions of the legislation, one backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and another by the Republican-led state Senate, but both would raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18. The change would potentially shift thousands of criminal cases annually from state supreme and county courts to family courts. But exactly how the new system will work remains in flux as negotiations continued this week.

“There are multiple bills being negotiated right now, and like most things the devil is in the details,” said Ulster County Public Defender Andrew Kossover this week. “But I think there’s a broad consensus that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be treated the same as adults.”


That consensus has been building for years based, in part, on new research on juvenile brain development that shows parts of the brain which govern decision-making and impulse control are not fully formed until the late teens or early 20s. That research, along with “evolving standards of decency,” were cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions that barred the death penalty for crimes committed by persons under age 18 and the imposition of life sentences with no parole for non-homicide offenses committed by minors. Meanwhile, states across the country have already raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, leaving just New York and North Carolina with the lower threshold. Progressive groups in New York have fought for years to raise the age, citing statistics showing higher rates of recidivism, mental illness, suicide and sexual assault for youth incarcerated in adult jails and prisons and the overrepresentation of black and Latino 16- and 17-year-olds in the state’s adult criminal justice system.

“All of these think tanks that have studied this issue have concluded that raise the age serves the community better,” said Kossover. “This is about improving outcomes for youth. Even young wannabe gangbangers can be saved.”

But Carnright presented a different perspective at a March 27 press conference in the legislative chambers of the County Office Building. Delivering his presentation in the style of a courtroom closing argument, Carnright warned that the legislation proposed in Albany could undermine efforts to combat violent gangs and leave elected district attorneys accountable to voters shut out of proceedings that prioritize “the best needs of the child” over public safety and crime victims’ demands for justice. Carnright supplemented his remarks with video clips and slides on a pair of monitors touting grisly crimes committed by teen members of the MS13 gang on Long Island and in Texas and a man with a face full of gang tattoos promoting a website called “Worldstarislam.” Carnright said that gangs like MS13 and the Bloods routinely recruit minors to carry out serious crimes because they know they will face “a slap on the wrist” in Family Court for acts that would earn an adult a lengthy prison sentence.

“I can’t help but think that the people promoting this legislation are thinking about the neighbor’s kid who’s driving home in the family SUV, gets pulled over and the police find some pot in the glove compartment,” said Carnright. “That’s not what we’re talking about here.”

In making his case against “raise the age,” Carnright called activists’ contention that New York was an outlier in prosecuting older teens as adults a “false narrative.” Every state, Carnright said, had some means of imposing stiff sentences and adult proceedings on juveniles accused of the most serious crimes. In Texas, for example, the age of criminal responsibility is 18, but teens can receive up to 40 years in state prison in the state’s family courts. Carnright also took issue with the raise the age supporters’ characterization of a system that routinely throws 16- and 17-year-olds into adult prisons or leaves them with employment-crippling criminal records.

Carnright said just 5 percent of the approximately 33,000 16- and 17-year-olds arrested annually in New York exit the criminal justice system with a criminal conviction. The vast majority he said, benefit from diversion programs, drug courts and conditional dismissal of charges.

Carnright said he’s especially concerned that Family Court rules, which bar police from interviewing juveniles without their parents’ permission, would now be applied to 16- and 17-year-olds who are suspected of or witness serious crimes. Carnright said many teens involved in the most serious gang-related crimes come from families where non-cooperation with the police is a given. In some cases, he said, a teen suspect’s legal guardian may be the same gang boss who ordered them to commit the crime.

To back up the claim, Carnright referred to the 2010 execution-style slaying of C.J. King on Cedar Street by Sex Money Murder gang member Trevor Mattis. Mattis, two months out of prison after serving a six-year sentence for a violent robbery, gunned down King to prevent him from testifying against his brother in another gang-related shooting. Mattis was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. That might not have happened, Carnright said, if police had been unable to speak to two key witnesses who would have been covered by Family Court rules under the new law.

“If raise the age had been in place, we would not have been able to interview those witnesses and that case would not have been solved,” said Carnright.

Carnright referenced another local case when discussing a provision in Cuomo’s bill that would prevent judges and other Family Court officials from inquiring about a juvenile’s past crimes. Former Kingston resident Michael “Mikey Mike” Hawkins had already been through Family Court for two previous shootings in 2009 when, shortly after his 16th birthday, he was arrested in connection with a third gunplay incident. Hawkins was eventually convicted of weapons possession and drew the maximum sentence — 15 years in state prison. If the “clean slate” provision had been in effect, Carnright said, a judge or probation officer deciding how to handle the case would have no knowledge of the earlier crimes.

“This creates a kind of ‘groundhog day’ for every youth who commits a crime before age 18,” said Carnright.

Carnright offered his own solution to concerns over the fate of juveniles in the adult justice system: concurrent jurisdiction. Under Carnright’s proposal prosecutors and judges could at their discretion redirect 16- and 17-year-olds to Family Court while keeping the most serious cases in the adult system. Carnright said most district attorneys would welcome the chance to send young offenders to Family Court where they could receive more services and support.

“They’re making this a lot more crazy complicated than it has to be,” said Carnright. “We are already focused on this issue … trust the DA to do the things that you’ve hired him to do.”

But Kossover said Carnright’s preferred solution would give too much discretion to prosecutors and would not ensure the even-handed administration of justice to youthful suspects. Leaving too much discretion to prosecutors in dealing with under-18 suspects left the door open to all of the outcomes “raise the age” was intended to prevent.

“You can’t pass laws that single out only the bad guy,” said Kossover. “How do we know that the next DA of Ulster County won’t say, ‘I want to take that 16-year-old with the marijuana in his car and indict him on a felony.’ How do we know he won’t run on that platform and win?”