After years-long fight, NY adopts new juvenile justice system


With the signing of the state budget last week, New York joins 48 other states that do not automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

On April 10, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a new law that will phase-in a higher age of criminal responsibility and move inmates under 18 out of adult jails and prisons and into specialized juvenile detention facilities. Watch the video of the bill signing below.

“We would send 16- and 17-year-olds to these jails or prisons with hardened criminals and then be surprised when they came out hardened, hurt, and worse than when they went in,” Gov. Cuomo said last week at the bill signing at the NYC Mission Society in Harlem. “And we’re paying for this machine to process the same thing over and over again, but this is no more,” Cuomo said.

Starting October 1, 2018 the age of criminal responsibility will be raised to 17 years of age, and then, as of October 1, 2019 it will be raised to 18.

The New York State bar Association points out that the age of criminal responsibility was set at 16 in 1962 on a “tentative” basis so it could be further studied and the group has long urged policymakers to raise the age to 18.

When the bill is fully implemented, children under 18 charged with nonviolent crimes would no longer be treated as adults in the criminal justice system.

Instead, those children would be referred to Family Court and would receive counseling and support services and, if deemed appropriate, would be sent to juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons and jails.

“The measure recognizes what researchers have documented — and many parents have observed — that 16- and 17-year-olds often lack the maturity and judgment to understand the legal consequences of their impulsive behaviors,” said Bar Association President Claire Gutekunst said. “A guiding hand can set a child on the path to becoming a responsible adult rather than a repeat offender.”

The Raise the Age Campaign — a coalition of unions, community activists, clergy, good government groups and legal aid advocates — has fought for 12 years to push the legislation and last week marked the climax of that journey when lawmakers finally brokered a deal to pass it.

Negotiating the deal held up the budget for a week past the April 1 deadline.

During negotiations, Senate Republicans argued the bill would make New York softer on crime, bringing up the issue of public safety, which proved to be one of the biggest hurdles for the bill’s passage.

“Unfortunately, the Governor and the Assembly Speaker care more about keeping teenage drug gang members, murderers and rapists out of jail than they do about funding our public schools, providing tax relief for our families and rebuilding our infrastructure,” Republican Senator Tom Croci said in a statement released April 3.

Croci’s statement summed up the temperament Senate Republicans had while negotiating raise the age’s place in the budget. Specifically, republicans wanted to ensure that violent youthful offenders do not automatically get sent to family court.

However, raise the age did gain the open support of one key Republican Senator, Patrick Gallivan, who served as a state trooper and Erie County sheriff before running for Senate.

“There’s no way to know yet if it’s going to have a positive effect or negative effect, but various data from research over the years shows that this can likely have a positive effect,” Gallivan said.

Gallivan’s support was pivotal in raise the age passing the Senate.

“With the additional opportunities in family court, we can ensure that misguided nonviolent youth have a chance to be redirected to succeed,” Gallivan said.

The measure also states that all 16- and 17 year-olds must be removed from Rikers Island prison by October 1, of 2018.

“We know Rikers has problems,” Gallivan said. “I think the removal of kids from Rikers Island is an extremely positive thing.”

The passing of the raise the age legislation marks a major policy victory for Gov. Cuomo who described the negotiations prior to signing the bill.

“I literally brought in the legislators sat them at a table. I brought in members of the Senate and members of the Assembly. We sat at a conference table I said gentlemen and ladies, ‘If we don’t work this out its going to die, if it dies, it’s going to make a lot of people disappointed, it’s going to continue abuse, it’s going to continue disillusionment and it’s up to you to forge compromise and put your politics aside to figure out how to get the yes.’”

Gov. Cuomo has been receiving widespread acclaim for his role in orchestrating the raise the age deal, particularly by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, child advocacy groups, and some law enforcement officials.

“I applaud Governor Cuomo for bringing Raise the Age to the forefront once again,” Allen Riley, the Madison County Sheriff and a member of the Commission on Youth Public Safety and Justice, said in a statement. That commission made recommendations to the governor and state officials on juvenile justice reform leading to the new Raise the Age law.

Yet, not everyone is celebrating the change.

“We had many concerns with the legislation as originally proposed,” said Thomas Zugibe, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York. “We raised those concerns with all of the parties to the negotiations. Some of these issues were heeded, while others were not.”

The District Attorneys Association commended Senate Republicans for advocating their shared concerns during budget negotiations.

“I especially want to thank the Senate Republican Conference for their tireless efforts to promote public safety and respect the needs of victims of crime in the State of New York,” Zugibe said.

Despite qualms, Zugibe stressed that public prosecutors across the state are sworn to administer the law faithfully.