Legislators push to ‘raise the age’ of criminal responsibility

Gov. Andrew Cuomo visits Greene correctional facility and meets with incarcerated youth in May 2015. Photo courtesy of Governor’s office.

Progressive lawmakers and the governor are renewing their push to reform the state’s juvenile criminal justice system, picking up where they left off last June when the session ended with no change to the law.

New York and North Carolina are the only two states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-old children as adults, but legislators are trying to change that.

On February 14, the New York State Assembly passed bill A.4876. Sponsored by Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, D-North Brooklyn, the bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state of New York to 18 years old.

Specifically, the bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, except for certain serious crimes such as murder and some violent felonies; prohibit the placement of anyone under the age of 18 in an adult jail or prison; create a youth court for juvenile offenders; and expand the existing youthful offender law to allow persons up to 20 years of age to be given youthful offender status and create a presumption of youthful offender status.

However 16- and 17-year-olds would still be trialed as adults if a violent felony was committed, but with an Adult Diversion Part judge overseeing the ruling.

“As a speaker of the New York State Assembly and a father, there is no greater legislature priority,” Speaker Carl Heastie said. “We have a moral obligation to confront the faults in the system that exacerbates the economic and racial disparity that disproportionally affects low income individuals.”

Momentum for the age raise of criminal responsibility in New York has been building in recent years. In 2015 Governor Cuomo issued an executive order to implement a plan to move minors out of adult jail, via Executive Order number 150.

Now this year the governor has made raising the age of criminal responsibility a priority, discussing it during his State of the State speeches in January.

Governor Cuomo at Greene correctional facility. Photo courtesy of the governor’s office.

Youth such as raise the age advocate Jim St. Germain embodies the raise-the-age mission. Germain was in Albany last Tuesday to help push the legislation by sharing his experience with the juvenile criminal justice system.

Germain is a former juvenile offender who turned his life around after getting out of juvenile detention and is currently enrolled in graduate school while working to support his family. “I was hustling and selling drugs at the age of 14 as a way to help my grandma pay the rent,” Germain said.

Germain was eventually caught, sentenced and placed into a juvenile detention facility. “Fortunately for me though I was arrested four months before my 16th birthday and I was charged with two D felonies,” Germain said.

Germain’s fortune did not end there. While in juvenile detention he connected with a public servant whom he said, “decided I was worth another shoot.” Germain received his GED while incarcerated and enrolled in John Jay College. Upon getting out he continued his education at John Jay where he went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.

After graduating Germain went back to the facility where he was incarcerated and applied for and received a job.

“I spent three years working with youth, basically giving them the same opportunity that I was afforded to by the criminal justice process,” Germain said. “As a taxpayer my question is what would you rather your tax dollars do? Give young people who have made a mistake, which some of them can’t control an opportunity to be where I am today? An asset to the community and country. Or would you rather further punish these young people and push them deeper into the criminal justice system?”

The raise-the-age campaign has also gained the full support of the Senate Democratic Conference.

“Raise the age has to be more than a slogan,” Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Democrat Committee leader, said last Monday at a press conference.

Senate Democrats have a slightly different vision in regards to implementing an age raise. “My bill largely mirrors the governor’s proposal with some significant differences,” State Senator Velmanette Montgomery said last Monday at a press conference. Senator Montgomery is sponsoring bills S.4121, S.4157, and S.4129 which all relate to criminal reform for youthful offenders.

Bill S.4129 would increase the age limit of a youthful offender from 19 to 22. Bill S.4157, the senate version of A.4876, amends the definition of juvenile delinquent, and youthful offender. While also creating special proceedings for certain juvenile offender cases, and establishes that no county jail can be used to confine persons under the age of 18. Finally S.4121 increases the age of criminal responsibility to 18.

“Annually 28,000 youth face being trialed as adults,” Stewart-Cousins, said. “70 percent of these accused are Black and Latino.” Stewart-Cousins highlights one of the key objectives senate democrats and the raise the age campaign claim to share which is to alleviate some of the racial disparity in the judicial system.

“By reducing recidivisms we also reduce the cost to taxpayers,” Paige Pierce, CEO of Families Together in New York State said last Tuesday at a press conference. Pierce also argued another staple of the raise-the-age campaign. “We must invest in our youth, rather than throw them away.”