Raise the Age advocates are optimistic this year


On the same day that hundreds of “Raise The Age” supporters rallied at the Capitol in support of bill S.4157/A.4876, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement signaling his support for the measure that would reduce criminal responsibility for those between the ages of 16 and 18 years old, depending on the crimes they commit. 

Supporters are optimistic following the Assembly’s passage of the Raise the Age bill and the governor making it a priority in this year’s State of the State Address.

“It is far past time for the Senate to join us, and pass my proposal to Raise the Age and reform our juvenile criminal law,” Cuomo said in a statement he released on March 7, the same day as the Albany rally.

New York is one of only two states in the nation — the other being North Carolina — that automatically processes our 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system. The governor and others who want to raise the age of criminal responsibility say this practice places teenagers in a prison system where they are more likely to be assaulted, to be injured by prison staff and to commit suicide than their peers who are processed as juveniles.

They are also far more likely to be re-arrested and re-incarcerated, says the governor.

“Many problems have no clear or proven solution, but this one does,” Cuomo said. “By raising the age, we can ensure that juveniles receive the intervention and rehabilitation they need to break the vicious cycle of recidivism and increase public safety for all New Yorkers.”

The Raise the Age bill is sponsored in the Assembly by Joseph Lentol and in the Senate by Velmanette Montgomery.

Specifically, the bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York state 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.

“We need to make sure our children are supported by alternatives and make sure that we’re not just giving them a band-aid, but a cure for this problem” Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Democratic conference leader, said.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility would afford youthful offenders with alternative opportunities for rehabilitation, rather than having them placed in jail where research has proven that it is likely they could experience trauma that can having a lasting and irreversible effect, according to Senator Jesse Hamilton, D-Brooklyn.

Supporters of Raise the Age policies say that, because the adolescent brain is still developing, the character, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are highly receptive to change. Adolescents, they say, respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior. For these reasons, incarcerating young criminals in adult prisons is a misguided approach to criminal justice.

“Many of our young men and women are going into the criminal justice system and coming out with no skill sets, sexually abused by fellow inmates, and physically abused by the people who work in the prison,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton cites the case of Kalief Browder as anecdotal evidence of how the system can fail a young person sent to prison.

Kalief Browder

Because his family could not come up with bail money, Browder spent three years in Rikers Island — much of it in solitary confinement — while awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder, who was eventually dismissed of all charges, committed suicide two years after his release.

“Many of these crimes are crimes that I believe only affect people who are poor and of color,” Hamilton said. “Because if you have an attorney and your parents have money you wouldn’t wind up in the criminal justice system.”

Advocates like Kourtney disclosed another side of the criminal justice system. At 17, Kourtney was arrested for committing crimes to fuel her heroin addiction. “I had 27 felony charges and several misdemeanor charges,” said Kourtney, who did not want to reveal her full name. But after just 21 days in jail, Kourtney was granted an opportunity that changed her life.

“After an initial recommendation from the DA to deny my youthful offender status and charge me as an adult, my private attorney got the court to agree to send me to drug court,” Kourtney said. “So they agreed to send me away to treatment and grant me my youthful offender status after I completed treatment.”

Kourtney completed treatment and was granted youthful offender status for her charges, which sealed her felony records. Thanks to her records being sealed Kourtney was able to get a job under federal contract of the U.S Department of Defense as a substance abuse coordinator.

“My outcome should be the standard and not the exception. I don’t think I would have received any of the same treatment if I wasn’t a young white girl from the suburbs,” she said.  “New York jails are filled with young men of color who have committed similar crimes to my own but do not have the privilege of my name face or skin-tone, and that’s not OK.”