Albany Finally Passes Raise The Age Legislation, But “The Fight Is Far From Over”


This past weekend, the New York State legislature enacted partial “Raise the Age” reform that will raise the age of adult criminal responsibility for nonviolent offenses to 18 and substantially change the way all 16- and 17-year-olds are treated by the state’s criminal justice system.

The reforms also specifically require New York City to move all 16- and 17-year-olds off of Rikers Island by October 1, 2018. That, however, is not likely to happen on time, setting up a potential clash between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Still, the reform is a significant victory for social justice advocates.

Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in 2015 after being wrongfully held on Rikers Island for more than three years on a false charge that was ultimately dismissed, told the Voice: “It’s a win. But there’s a compromise that comes with that. The fight is far from over.”

Alicia Barraza, a prominent Raise the Age proponent whose son killed himself after a hellish four-year odyssey through New York’s criminal justice system that began when he was 17, told the Voice: “I’m glad to see New York State has finally passed some semblance of this legislation.”

Governor Cuomo, who pinned Raise the Age reform to his state budget proposal, told reporters: “This is a legacy accomplishment. They have talked about raising the age for 12 or 13 years. It has never gotten done. This budget does it.”

Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the legislation into law this week.

Under the reform, all 16- or 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors, and the vast majority of juvenile offenders who commit nonviolent felonies, will be diverted to Family Court, where the focus is on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and where records are sealed.

For juvenile offenders whose crimes involve a lethal weapon, a sex crime, or significant physical injury, their cases will be handled by a newly created Youth Court.

This new court will be part of New York State’s criminal court system, “presided over by a Family Court judge, where offenders would have access to additional intervention services and programming,” according to a statement issued by State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who negotiated the agreement on behalf of the Democrat-controlled assembly.

According to the statement, all violent juvenile offenders “will be treated as adults for sentencing purposes, though the court will be directed to consider the defendant’s age when imposing a sentence of incarceration.”

The debate over Raise the Age reform was the main cause of the biggest rift in years between New York State Senate Democrats and Republicans and delayed passage of the state budget, which by law had been due April 1.

The agreement confers a patina of credibility upon the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway democrats led by Senator Jeffrey Klein that collaborates with Senate Republicans, and that Governor Cuomo credited with helping get the reform passed.

In February, when challenged by the Daily News to justify the IDC’s existence, which critics say empowers Republicans, Klein declared there was pragmatic value in it: “This is a pivotal time in New York and as pragmatic progressives, the Independent Democratic Conference is creating a majority coalition with Republicans because you must engage in order to make things happen.”

Now, for the second year in a row, the IDC has helped milk a progressive result from an otherwise Republican-controlled Senate — last year it was paid family leave and an incremental increase in the mandatory minimum wage to $15, though critics say those reforms are watered-down versions of what Democrats would have passed.

The changes required by the reform impose substantial financial, logistical, and legal responsibilities upon the counties, because the reforms necessitate the creation of an entirely new criminal justice system infrastructure, as well as the expansion of existing infrastructure.

Courtrooms will have to be constructed or appropriated for the new Youth Court. Youth Court judgeships will have to be created, and judges will have to be trained in Family Court procedure.

At the same time, because the reforms will divert the majority of 16- and 17- year-old offenders into Family Court, the Family Court caseload is expected to increase substantially, necessitating not only new Family Court judgeships but more juvenile public defenders, more juvenile prosecutors, and more probation officers.

Without additional funding and staffing, it is doubtful New York’s Family Court system can effectively absorb the increased caseload. According to a report from ProPublica, the system — at least in New York City — “seems perennially in a state of crisis. It’s been the subject of some reform effort or other for decades. And though there has been some progress recently . . . those who work in it every day say the workload in family court still overwhelms its resources.”

Previously, Governor Cuomo had budgeted $135 million to Raise the Age reform, but it is not known at press time what that final figure will be.

Aside from changes in the way juvenile offenders are processed by the courts, the new law prohibits housing juvenile offenders in facilities with adult criminals.

Therefore, new youth detention space will have to be constructed or leased to accommodate 16- and 17-year-olds too dangerous to be released. The burden of building these facilities, expanding existing facilities or leasing space in other facilities, and transporting detainees to and from a facility to court, also falls to the counties.

For example, Cheryl DiNolfo, the Monroe County executive, told a local television news station that the reforms would cost her county $21 million, which includes doubling the size of the county’s juvenile detention center. Chautauqua County executive Vince Horrigan, meanwhile, told Jamestown’s Post-Journal that 16- and 17-year-olds who require detention could no longer be housed in the county jail and would have to be transferred to a juvenile facility, “and Horrigan said they don’t know where that would be.”

However difficult the task of figuring out where to detain 16- and 17-year-olds may be for upstate counties, it pales in comparison to the challenge now facing New York City, which must, according to the new law, move these juveniles off of Rikers Island by October 1, 2018.

The city is not likely to meet that deadline.

The Voice asked Mayor de Blasio’s press office where the city planned to hold 16- and 17-year-old juvenile offenders when the law takes effect. Spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas responded, “Recognizing that kids have different needs than adults, we already house adolescents separately, and remain committed to moving them off Rikers Island.”

The de Blasio administration has an existing $300 million plan to expand its juvenile detention centers in the Bronx and Brooklyn to accommodate 16- and 17-year-olds, but that plan is expected to take “several years” to execute, according to New York City commissioner Joseph Ponte, who said so at a hearing of the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services last November.

“Because of the building policies of the city of New York, it will take several years,” Ponte conceded, to complete construction of the new, expanded juvenile detention facilities. “I’m not sure if we have an estimate on time.”

But yesterday in an interview, Governor Cuomo set a firm date: “Make it happen, and make it happen by the end of next year.”