Legislation approved this week as part of the state budget process will raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 — and bring major changes in the local criminal justice system.
The changes, which will be phased in over the next two years, means that the approximately 33,000 16- and 17-year-olds who enter the adult criminal justice system every year will now have their cases adjudicated in Family Court or, for violent felony crimes, a new youth division of state Supreme Court. The law would also shift thousands of juvenile inmates now incarcerated in adult jails and prisons to facilities for youth. The legislation, which has been sought by progressive activists for years, came in for criticism last month by District Attorney Holley Carnright, who said the new rules would hamper cops’ ability to investigate serious crimes and would leave crime victims in the dark about the fate of their victimizers.
The final legislation, which passed earlier this week following contentious debate on the state budget, represents a compromise between Assembly Democrats, who favored a simple transfer of all 16- and 17-year-old defendants into Family Courts, and state Senate Republicans, who wanted to maintain discretion to keep the most serious offenders in adult courts.
Under the new law, all misdemeanor prosecutions of juveniles would occur in Family Court. Felony charges would be directed to a new youth “part” in state Supreme Court that would have access to treatment and diversion programs unavailable in the adult system. All nonviolent felonies will be transferred to Family Court unless prosecutors can convince a judge that the case involves “extraordinary circumstances” that justify retaining it in state Supreme Court. Violent felonies would be subject to a three-part test, including whether the case involved a weapon or serious injury to a victim. Cases that do not meet the criteria will be diverted to Family Court. Juvenile offenders tried in the youth part of state Supreme Court, meanwhile, will be treated as adults for sentencing purposes. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds accused of low-level civil violations like possession of small amounts of marijuana and vehicle and traffic offenses will continue to have their cases adjudicated in local village, town and city courts.
“Like most legislation that gets passed it’s a compromise bill,” said Ulster County Public Defender Andy Kossover. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
DA still concerned
But Carnright this week expressed strong reservations about parts of the law that, he said, were not included in lawmakers talking points touting its passage. In particular, Carnright said, he was concerned that Family Court rules, which bar police from juvenile suspects without their parents’ approval, would impede police investigations into murders and other serious crimes involving 16- and 17-year-old suspects or witnesses. Another provision in the bill, he said, would make it impossible for prosecutors to obtain information about crimes committed as a juvenile when making determinations about plea agreements or diversion programs for adult defendants. Carnright said he was especially bothered by a section of the law that specifically states that victims will not be informed of the outcome of the case.
“I think everyone supports the idea that youth should not be incarcerated in adult facilities, so in the broad strokes this looks like a good idea,” said Carnright. “But when you look at some of the details, details that the people who drafted the law don’t mention in their press release, and there’s some troubling stuff.”
The new legislation will also require some major changes in how local officials deal with youthful offenders. For example, once the law takes effect, cases involving 16- and 17-year-old defendants will be shifted from the District Attorney’s Office to the county attorney, who serves as a prosecutor in Family Court.
The law also sets deadlines of Oct. 1, 2018 and Oct. 1, 2019 for the removal of 16- and 17-year-olds respectively from county jails. Currently in Ulster County, all inmates aged 16 to 21 are housed in a dedicated “pod” separate from older inmates. Juveniles, meanwhile, must be transported to detention facilities maintained by the state Office of Children and Family Services in Syracuse and Buffalo. Absent a new local facility, Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum said at a press conference earlier this month, his office could face significant new costs for transporting newly classified juvenile offenders between the upstate facilities and Ulster County Family Court.