Update: On Friday, the state budget passed, including a change to allow for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the age of juvenile delinquency would increase from 16 to 17-years-old beginning Oct. 1, 2018. It would then rise to 18 on Oct. 1, 2019.
“We came together to reverse an injustice and raised the age of criminal responsibility once and for all,” Mr. Cuomo wrote on Twitter.
Below is the original story published in last week’s Riverhead News-Review.
Original Story: New York is one of two states that allow 16- and 17-year-olds to be prosecuted and incarcerated as adults, but a campaign is underway to raise the age of criminal responsibility here to 18.
Supporters of the effort say criminal justice reform is needed for young offenders, allowing them an alternate path. Opponents argue it is not the solution and that incarceration of minors is rare except for serious crimes.
The issue was also one of several sticking points that prevented the state Legislature from passing a final budget by its April 1 deadline.
Last week, Suffolk County legislators called on the state Senate to support raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18, except for certain serious crimes such as murder and some violent felonies.
“Young people, as much as anyone, must be held accountable for their actions,” County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement last week. “However, in holding them accountable, it is in our best interest to invest and choose an accountability system that allows them to choose a different path.”
Proponents of “Raise the Age” point to studies from various state and federal agencies, as well as criminal justice reform groups, to make their case. The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that youths held in adult facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and Building Blocks for Youth, an initiative to promote a fair juvenile justice system, has said youths in those facilities are twice as likely to be injured by prison staff.
“Subjecting them to abuse, rather than educating them and providing them with the foundation they need to lead constructive lives, is a mistake that has been well documented time after time,” said county Legislature presiding officer DuWayne Gregory in a statement.
As of Monday, 18 minors were incarcerated at the Suffolk County jail in Riverside, according to a spokesperson for county Sheriff Vincent DeMarco.
Local law enforcement officials and others who have dealt with youth in the courts weighed in on the movement.
Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said the organizations he belongs to, including the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, oppose “Raise the Age.”
“The vast majority of juvenile offenders are treated as children already in New York and it doesn’t need to change,” he said, adding that prison is typically treated as a last resort unless they commit violent crimes that should not be treated as juvenile.
Those cases result in dismissals and adjournments, are pleaded to noncriminal violations or receive youthful offender adjudications. “So there’s a lot of avenues already built into the system in New York State for reasoning to keep it 16, 17-year-olds,” Chief Flatley said.
Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller agreed that measures are in place to address that age range in the courts.
“To me, it comes down to you’re at an age where you know right from wrong,” he said. Chief Hegermiller added that he does not think broadly changing the age of criminal responsibility is the correct way to handle specific concerns about placing 16- and 17-year-olds in adult jails.
Incoming Southampton Town police chief Steven Skrynecki said at a recent meeting in Flanders that he doesn’t like the idea.
“What’s the age of most of your gang-bangers? 15, 16, 17,” he said. “If you start saying you’re not criminally responsible until you’re 18, what are all these 16- and 17-year-old gang-bangers doing? To me, that’s giving them too much.”
Robyn Bergen-Gaston, director of youth and senior services at the Family Service League in Riverhead, said she thinks raising the age would be a safer route for young adults. She also pointed to research that suggests there’s higher risk of sexual assault and suicide when young people are held in adult facilities, as well as a greater likelihood that they will re-offend.
“We want to decrease the risk, not increase the risk,” she said. “These are kids who need help and support.”
As part of the “Raise the Age” proposal, more cases would be moved from criminal court to family court.
Youth counselor Beth Maccagli, who serves as a mentor for the Riverhead Town youth court, said if the age were raised the program could see a difference in its caseload.
“If ‘Raise the Age’ did happen, I believe youth court numbers would go up because the purpose of raising the age is keeping kids out of the traditional justice system and youth court is looked at as an alternative to juvenile justice,” she said.
“Out here in our area, I can say definitively from my experience that it is as rare as a hen’s tooth,” Southold Town Justice William Price said. “It takes quite a bit for a 16- or 17-year-old to be incarcerated, same with an 18-year-old, but of course they can be.”
If a 17-year-old committed a murder, there’s a chance that bail would be high enough that they would be incarcerated, Judge Price said. But for a speeding offense or a violation for spraying graffiti, a young person would not be incarcerated.
Raising the age would put extra work on the family courts, the judge said, noting that those courts can still put an individual in jail.
THE RESTORATIVE JUSTICE MODEL
The Southold Town Youth Bureau is in the process of designing a youth court that would follow a restorative justice model for individuals ages 16 and under who commit nonviolent crimes.
Youth courts in both Riverhead and Southampton towns follow that model, offering an alternative pathway that aims to hold offenders accountable and include the community, said Lynn Nyilas, Southold Town Youth Bureau director.
“Our neighboring towns offer youth courts and I just feel it’s really important for us to offer that as well,” she said. “It’s definitely a community solution to discourage behavior that’s not going down a path that’s positive.”
Riverhead’s youth court hears cases involving individuals up to age 18, with referrals from the town’s justice court and from family court, Ms. Maccagli said. The court is run by youth, for youth, she said.
“I feel youth court is such a good program because instead of a child getting a violation or — it’s usually violations or minor crimes — instead of sort of getting slap on the hand, you’re incorporating restorative justice into their lives,” Ms. Maccagli said. “Each kid is looked at individually and you say what’s going on in your life, what brought you to this point, what does it seem that you need that’s going to help you so that in the future this isn’t the choice you’re going to make.”
Community service is often a large part of a youthful offender’s case disposition, she said. They also apologize to anyone who may have been affected by their actions, she said.
Karen Matz, a youth counselor who oversees Southampton Town’s youth court, said she sees a “twofold impact” — for the offenders and for the students who participate in the court. One outcome is that offenders realize their actions have affected not only themselves, but their families and the community at large.
“You can see the looks on their faces as they start to process and realize,” Ms. Matz said. The other impact is that participants get the chance to learn about crimes and test out if practicing law is something they’d want to pursue.
Ms. Nyilas said the hope is that training for participants in Southold’s youth court, students in the community, will begin this fall. Once the training is completed, the goal is to start hearing youth court cases by early December.
WITH TIM GANNON