criminal law reform

New State Law Will Keep Most 16- and 17-Year-Olds from Being Tried as Adults

Advancing goals advocates have sought for a dozen years, on April 10 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure that will keep most, but not all, 16- and 17-year-olds from being tried as adults in state criminal courts.

The so-called “Raise the Age” measure, added to the state’s 2017-2018 budget bill, will end adult court trials for misdemeanors charged to 16- or 17-year-olds. Their cases would be transferred after 30 days to Family Court, unless the district attorney can prove “extraordinary circumstances” – a term left undefined in the new law – exist.

Felony charges against 16- and 17-year-olds would remain in criminal court, but non-violent offenses would be handled by a new youth section of the criminal courts, by judges trained on family law issues. Cases in which teens in the affected age bracket are charged with violent felonies – fewer than 3,500 of the under 25,000 16- or 17-year-olds New York arrested last year — would remain in regular criminal courts. Judges could, however, transfer non-sexual felony cases to Family Court, as long as there were no injuries, no weapon was used, or the defendant played only a small role in a group crime.

When New York’s changes take effect (starting October 1 next year for 16-year-olds, a year later for 17-year-olds), North Carolina may be the only state left that routinely prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

The new law also provides for sealing the records of juvenile offenders and makes pardons available for released non-violent offenders who do not re-offend for at least 10 years, which seal their conviction record. State officials forecast that provision could boost employment prospects for about an estimated 12,000 residents.

Another provision of the new law revises incarceration rules for teens between the ages of 16 and 18. Starting in October 2018, offenders younger than 17 cannot be held in adult penal facilities, whether state prisons or county jails, and the same will be true for 17- and 18-year-olds starting a year later. Instead, the state will have to develop “home-like” facilities for them.

The bill-signing ceremony in Harlem featured speeches by Rev. Al Sharpton and the brother of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who spent three traumatic years in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail – often in solitary confinement – while awaiting trial on charges that were ultimately dismissed, and then committed suicide a few years after being released. (The bill would bar holding 16- or 17-year-olds at Rikers Island, which New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed shutting down in the next 10 years.)

Though the new law was supported by Gov. Cuomo and cleared in April by both chambers of the state legislature, much of it proved controversial. Some advocates viewed the final version as over-complicated or watered-down, objecting particularly to what they saw as its exclusions and lengthy phase-in. Some opponents disliked having the 43-page criminal reform measure attached to the state’s main spending bill, while others worried Family Courts might not be equipped to handle the added caseload or deal properly with criminal law issues. Both sides say they’ll watch how well the new law works, and will be ready to seek further changes they think are needed.

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