“Raise the Age” bill left out of budget, but advocates remain determined

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Advocates for raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York are disappointed the measure was not included in the final budget deal passed earlier this month. But recent comments made by the governor on a New York City radio talk show indicate discussions are ongoing to pass a “raise the age” bill this session.

Meanwhile a coalition of Long Island clergy has delivered a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan in hopes of getting the bill (S.1019/A.2774) passed by June.

There is strong support for the bill in the Assembly and the governor made raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 a top priority in his State of the State Address in January. However, Flanagan has voiced opposition to amending the law, a fact Cuomo referenced on this week’s radio interview on WQHT, Hot 97.

Cuomo told host Ebro Darden that Senate Republicans “don’t want to loosen the laws; they see it as being soft on crime. They are opposed to changing the law.”

Cuomo said until the law is changed, the state Department of Corrections is placing16- and 17-year-olds in separate facilities to keep them segregated from adult prisoners.

“Part of the problem is, you have 16- and 17- year olds tried as an adult, they have a record for life they have a stiff penalty,” Cuomo said. “Second problem is, you are 16, you go into a state prison; this is a really rough situation for a 16-year old to walk into.”

A coalition of progressive reformers have been pushing for several years to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from age 16 to age 18, so that children are not subject to adult criminal proceedings except for serious crimes.

Currently 16- and 17-year-old youths end up with life-long adult criminal convictions, unlike in juvenile court, where records are generally sealed.

New York and North Carolina are currently the only two state that treat 16- and 17-year-old youths as adults in the criminal justice system.

Thirty-six spiritual leaders from Long Island sent a letter to lawmakers on April 5 in hopes of pushing the bill forward, now that the budget is passed.

“We are here because we want to see New York give its youth a second chance. It was a shame that raise the age was not included in this year’s final budget because it is crucial legislation that would increase public safety and help end the cycle of crime,” said the Rev. Margaret Allen. “Charging youth as adults forces these children to grow up fast — and not in a good way.”

Studies cited by Raise the Age advocates show that youth who are placed in the adult justice system are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested in the future, and that raising the age of criminal responsibility could eventually contribute to a decrease in violent crime.

In 2013, the Juvenile Justice Commission in Illinois saw a 14 percent decrease in violent crime when the state began to prosecute 17-year-olds as juveniles. Other research shows that the brain is not fully developed until age 25, and until that point, young people are very responsive to change — either positively, through interventions and reform, or negatively, by learning how to become a life-long criminal in an adult prison.

“As a society, we constantly draw arbitrary lines in the sand that are subject to change over time – the age one can vote, purchase alcohol or tobacco, or drive a car. Juvenile justice is not exempt from these lines, nor is it exempt from the changes that come with them,” said Christine Pahigian, executive director of the Friends of Island Academy, an organization that supports young people released from prison with the goal of rebuilding their lives and preventing recidivism. “More than a century after the first lines were drawn to define adulthood in our legal system, research and policy suggests we are far overdue for a revision of the age of criminal responsibility.”

“Together, with Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we are more than equipped to forge new standards of juvenile justice that set an example for the rest of the nation,” Pahigian said.

Other initiatives outlined in Cuomo’s State of the State Address seek to improve prisoner reentry with transitional support systems after release, improving community schools and providing job opportunities for at-risk youth.

The raise the age bill currently resides in the Codes Committee in both the Assembly and the Senate.