When Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the “Raise the Age” law in April last year, it drew major praise for ending New York’s long tradition of prosecuting defendants younger than 18 in adult criminal courts. Less noticed at the time was that taking 16- and 17-year-old juveniles out of the regular criminal courts would not happen overnight, but instead would be phased in over a two-year period.
We’ve recently passed the first milestone: October 1 of this year marked the change to move 16-year-olds out of the state’s criminal courts. On that date, North Carolina became the only state in the nation handles all offenders that young in criminal courts, regardless of the crime with which they’re charged. But it won’t be until October 1, 2019 that the change extends to 17-year-olds.
Instead of appearing in criminal courts, youths facing misdemeanor charges will appear in Family Court, or before a judge who has special training and access to social services. When fully implemented, the new law will work like this: 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a misdemeanor will have their case sent to Family Court, which has diverse ties with a wide assortment of support and counseling services.
Those facing non-violent felony charges will start in a newly created youth section of the criminal court, where judges will be required to have special training in family and youth issues. Except where prosecutors can prove “extraordinary circumstances,” these cases will eventually be transferred to Family Court.
When young offenders are charged with violent felonies, they will stay in criminal court, although judges can transfer some non-sexual offenses to Family Court, provided the crime did not involve use of a weapon, no one was injured, or the juvenile defendant played only a minor role in a crime involving a larger group.
The “Raise the Age” law also made a number of other useful changes. It prohibits the youngest offenders being housed in adult jails and prisons. And if will allow young offenders who stay free of crime for 10 years after finishing their sentences to apply to have the record of their previous criminal convictions sealed, to make it less difficult to find employment.
But the union officials representing the 3,500 court officers in the New York court system are already protesting that they lack the security resources needed to implement the “Raise the Age” changes. At a press conference and rally held in Brooklyn on September 25, they claimed the court security system is already understaffed by 350 to 400 officers (with staffing levels a third below what they were a decade ago).
Since the shift of younger offenders to Family Court will mean reassignment there of some officers now serving in criminal courts, the court officer groups argue, the new law will reduce criminal courtroom security even further. Instead of having an average of four officers assigned to a criminal courthouse, the number is likely to drop to only a pair of officers.
The unions have been in a protracted quarrel with the Office of Court Administration and the judges who supervise it. They are urging Gov. Cuomo to step in to beef up court security, and the legislature to provide additional funding.