"Raise the Age" Finally Signed into
New York State Law
“This country is criminalizing our youth for being youthful,” said New York State Senator Jesse Hamilton a month ago as he endorsed “Raise the Age." At the time, New York was one of only two states in the country to prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. The practice paradoxically adds crime to communities, and feeds into the “pipeline” prison system. ACTS is dedicated to halting Mass Criminalization, an issue which disproportionately affects minorities and permeates Syracuse. For years, “Raise the Age” has fought to increase the age of criminal responsibility in New York State to 18-years-of-age, a crucial step in reversing Mass Criminalization and creating an equitable community. After a tireless battle, “Raise the Age” legislation was signed into law by Governor Cuomo on April 10th, 2017. The new law is expected to prevent up to 2,400 crimes every five years, as estimated by the New York State government.
“By raising the age of criminal responsibility, this legislation will…help us deliver on the New York promise to advance social justice and affirm our core progressive values,” Cuomo said at a ceremony in celebration of the new legislation.
In the Governor’s company during the ceremony was Akeem Browder, brother to the late Kalief Browder. Kalief was falsely accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 at 16-years-of-age, and subsequently spent 3 years on Rikers Island. Kalief spent 2 years of his detainment in solitary confinement, and was finally released only to commit suicide in 2015. The newly passed “Raise the Age” legislation intends to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.
“Thanks to ‘Raise the Age’ legislation, tens of thousands of New York’s youth who make a mistake will be treated in an age appropriate manner,” stated “Raise the Age” in response to the news on April 10th.
The 25,000-word law, which was debated intensely by Democrats and Republicans in State Congress, soothes one of the ugliest blemishes on the reputation of our state. Thousands of 16 and17-year-olds much like Kalief Browder pass through the adult Criminal Justice System each year. These youths are denied vital rehabilitative measures available in the juvenile system. As a result, re-arrests are 34% higher for those who committed felony charges and were processed in adult systems. Additionally, 80% of youth released from adult facilities reoffend, often escalating the severity of their crimes each time. Youth held in these adult facilities are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide, and 50% more likely to suffer violence or sexual abuse.
When youth are tried as adults, they are commonly exposed to draconic and abhorrent conditions. Youth Solitary Confinement, which is still practiced in New York State, has been denounced by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading…torture.” Although the practice of Youth Solitary Confinement occurs in juvenile detention centers as well, it is more prevalent in adult facilities as a means to separate youth from other prisoners, or simply as the commonplace punitive method used by prison staff.
The practice of processing youth through adult criminal courts is also an issue of racial injustice. Although Blacks and Latinos make up only 33% of the statewide youth population, they represent approximately 72% of all arrests. For many of these arrested youth, the destination has been the adult court system.
ACTS and “Raise the Age” assert that trying youth in adult courts is also ignorant to decades of research done on brain development. Top researchers across America agree that the mind is not fully developed until age 25. Teenagers often display impulsive behavior for this reason, as the ability to maturely assess future consequences has not yet fully emerged. Anyone who can remember their school days will find some truth in this.
“I have two children who were once 16 and 17-years-old,” said Dave Babcock, the President of ACTS, “Their minds and behaviors were clearly not the same as those of an adult’s.”
For all these malignant effects, our communities have achieved no greater security. Trying 16 and 17-year-olds as adults encourages recidivism and profoundly jeopardizes
rehabilitation. Additionally, very few of the crimes committed by youth are violent in nature. Over 70% of youth criminal cases in New York State are for misdemeanors, and 14% are for non-violent felonies.
“This piece of legislation balances public safety and individual rights. We believe it is the most comprehensive piece of legislation on raising the age,” stated Alphonso David, counsel to Governor Cuomo.
Indeed, the new law introduces a list of monumental changes and injects the state budget with an additional $500 million over the next four years. All 16 and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors will be handled in Family Court. For non-violent felony youth offenders, the process begins in a specially designated “youth part” of the Criminal Court. These cases are presided over by judges trained in Family Court law. If the district attorney cannot prove within 30 days that the crime was “extraordinary” in nature, then the youth is admitted to Family Court. According to the New York Times, violent felony youth offenders may be diverted from the “youth part” of the Criminal Court only if they meet three pronged criteria: “whether the victim sustained significant physical injury, whether the accused used a weapon, and whether the perpetrator engaged in criminal sexual conduct.” According to the New York Times, only 1% of the 20,000 juvenile charges per year in New York State fall into the violent felony category.
Rightly horrified by the Kalief Browder story, Cuomo also called for significant changes regarding where youth may be imprisoned. As of October 1, 2018, offenders under 17 will be barred from county jails, with the same rule for those under 18-years-of-age taking effect exactly a year later. Although many of the provisions ordained in “Raise the Age” legislation will take up to two years to implement, advocacy groups and others around the state exalted the breakthrough law.
Beth Powers, director of youth justice at the Children’s Defense Fund of New York, called the legislation a “monumental step” for its ability to direct “thousands of kids into Family Court.” While praise has been enthusiastic, many remain vigilant.
“At the same time we celebrate this legislation, ACTS also considers it to be a first step,” Dave Babcock emphasized.
Meanwhile, people on both sides of the aisle have been deeply critical for a multitude of reasons. For State Senator Kevin S. Parker, the legislation is simply inadequate.
“This is real simple, and we made it complicated,” said Parker, “all we had to do was say that we’re going to take 16 and 17-year-olds and treat them like 15-year-olds.” He criticized the law further by deeming it “half a loaf,” and vowed to gain more ground in the future. Even the legislation’s staunchest supporters found the sentiment more than reasonable.
“For those who don’t think it goes far enough, I will remind you: we are not dropping off the end of the Earth tonight. Laws are made to amend them,” assured State Senator Diane J Savino.
Less tolerant, perhaps, have been the attitudes of “Raise the Age’s” most stubborn opponents. Two years ago, Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick approved of “Raise the Age” reform.
“I think it’s a very, very good idea,” said Fitzpatrick in a statement at the time.
Just a few years later, Fitzpatrick’s attitude shifted drastically. He expressed that “Raise the Age” may be dangerous, and would stifle investigations on youth offenders. These same investigations have migrated from the DA’s jurisdiction into the hands of Family Courts since passage of the new law on April 10th.
“They’re not little shoplifters or fare beaters, they’re gangsters, they’re murderers, they’re rapists, they’re burglars, they’re violent thugs, and they don’t deserve to receive a pass from the New York State Legislature,” said Fitzpatrick.
Unfortunately, the strong statement disregarded the fact that most youth criminal cases are misdemeanors. On March 24th, 2017, at a press conference, Fitzpatrick projected social media posts of Syracuse youth for his audience. Each picture featured a 15, 16, or 17-year-old holding what appeared to be genuine firearms.
“They’re holding MAC-10’s and Glocks and other things that can cause death and destruction,” he said.
Partially on these grounds, he requested that New Yorkers refuse to endorse “Raise the Age.” His distinctions raised a few red flags in the process. Despite exposing (perhaps fairly) inner-city youth for apparent possession of firearms, he did not address similar social media posts made by youth in rural areas. Surely he should also criticize teens holding AR-15’s and AK-47s? Did he hope to disarm “Raise the Age” and simultaneously ignite a debate on 2nd amendment rights and stricter gun laws? Or, was it an argument directed at a specific geographic region, featuring youth of a convenient demographic? One cannot presume to know DA Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical intention. However, that does not forbid someone from expressing confusion at what appears to be a scare tactic meant to dissuade New Yorkers from supporting “Raise the Age” legislation. In the end, the question is: do we want to be corrective to our youth, or simply vindictive? It would be a fascinating question for the DA to answer now that “Raise the Age” is law. To his credit, Fitzpatrick has consistently protected safety measures for youth in prisons.
DA Fitzpatrick is joined by other critics within law enforcement around the state. ACTS wishes to engage in dialogue with these law enforcement leaders, and foster a mutual understanding of community well-being.
“ACTS is willing to work with any group including the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department to implement restorative services,” concluded Dave Babcock.
The inspiration for “Raise the Age,” after all, has been the advancement of restorative justice and rehabilitative measures for our youth. The root motivation for these measures, in turn, is to end Mass Criminalization and foster a more equitable community.
The incarceration rate of the United States is the second highest in the world (second only to the small island nation of Seychelles). Our prison population is over 2,220,000, which is compared to China’s 1.5 million prisoner population, even as they boast a total population of 1.357 billion. Out of those 2,220,000 prisoners, many are still youth. Out of those youth, some are like Kalief Browder. Browder, who sharpened a shard of plastic from a bucket in his isolation cell and cut himself open, who attempted to hang himself from a light fixture with a noose made of bed sheets, who wasted two years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, who was memorialized by President Obama, could have been saved if political will was mustered sooner. On April 10th, with the passage of the “Raise the Age” legislation, thousands of youth like Browder are ensured salvation where there was none before. ACTS is not clairvoyant, but we see compassion gathering on the horizon.