The New York Legislature has just passed the Raise the Age initiative. For decades, the issue was contentious and divisive. This act now provides significant protection to juvenile defendants. The key feature of this initiative is how the state will deal with 16 and 17-year-old defendants. Rather than send them to adult prisons they will now be diverted to the family court with access to social services and will also be offered special training.
For Governor Cuomo this has been a major coup in his political career. For years, he has sought to raise the age of juveniles so that they would not be treated and incarcerated like adults. Up until this initiative during the last few days, New York and North Carolina were the only two states in the nation which viewed 16 and 17-year-old as adults in criminal court.
After passing the initiative, Governor Cuomo stated that despite being a progressive state, New York had a very unjust criminal system. Over the years, countless juveniles have been incarcerated in adult prisons and many suffered significant harm.
The effort to get this bill passed was not a trivial matter. There was a lot of opposition. One would think that just treating a 16/17-year-old like a 15-year-old would be an easy matter, but not so in Albany politics.
The new law does have some simple features; now all 16 and 17-year-old individuals accused of misdemeanors will be handled by Family Court. Non-violent felony cases will start in criminal court, but in a new section known as ‘Youth Part.’ But the cases will be head by judges trained in family court law. These individuals will then be automatically diverted to the Family Court after 30 days unless there are extraordinary circumstances.
Those arrested for violent felony cases, which make up about 1% of the more than 20,000 juveniles charged in New York, will be diverted from the Youth Part first to see if the crime involved physical injury, a weapon or if the perpetrator engaged in criminal sexual conduct.
This law will also change the detention rule for juveniles. Offenders under 17 will no longer be held in county jails. This bill is considered major progress for the 16 and 17 year olds who run afoul of the law. Only time will tell if it is successful.