Since the implementation of New York’s Raise the Age (RTA) law in October, not much has changed for upstate Jefferson County.
While 16-year-olds who would have previously been charged in adult court are now being tried as juvenile delinquents, where they face lesser sentences, there have not been many of them.
“Right now we’re up to 14 (RTA cases) since October,” said County Attorney David Paulsen last month. “It has not, at this stage at least, been a huge burden.”
Ten of the cases have been misdemeanors, four have been felonies. The number of cases will almost certainly rise in October, when 17-year-olds will fall under the Raise the Age law, but Paulsen said he thinks the numbers will rise as law enforcement becomes more comfortable with the law’s requirements for arresting adolescents.
“I suspect, as time goes by … the burden will increase,” he said. “I think anyone’s just a little hesitant to make arrests in this age category.”
The major change at the front end of the Raise the Age process is that most 16- and later 17-year-olds will be treated like younger suspects are treated now.
They cannot be held in adult jails, and there are new parental notification requirements. If arrested after hours, law enforcement will have to find a magistrate to arraign them and notify parents before questioning them. If the teen is held pending trial, they may have to be transported hours away to one of a handful of youth detention facilities across the state.
Once arrested, 16- and 17-year-olds are arraigned in adult courts but are usually transferred to family court unless the charge is particularly serious — including most violent crimes and sexual assault — in which case the case is transferred to a youth part of adult criminal court. According to some officials involved, the circumstances under which a case can be held in adult court are unclear to law enforcement, causing frustration and confusion. For example, one law enforcement official said, if a young person has been tried in family court multiple times, they may eventually appear in adult court and face a higher felony charge with a clean record, increasing the likelihood of a lighter sentence.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that before the Raise the Age legislation came into effect, arrest rates for 16- and 17-year-olds fell sharply. According to New York state data, the total numbers of arrests in that age range statewide dropped 21.7 percent within the six month period of January to June in 2018, when the law was passed but not yet implemented, over the same period in 2017. Arrests were down overall for 2018 compared to 2017, including the first three months of the law’s implementation, beginning in October.
At least for the New York City Police Department (NYPD), this trend accelerated in the last three months of 2018 — arrests dropped by 54 percent from Oct. 1, when the law took effect, to Dec. 31 compared to the same period in 2017, according to a report published by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.
In a Wall Street Journal story on the report, the New York City Police Department said the drop was due to the department’s reliance of juvenile reports, which are internal records kept instead of arrests for minor crimes committed by youths younger than 16, according to a New York City government site and the NYCLU. The NYPD did not respond to a request for additional information.
Upstate, it is less clear what is happening. The state data shows an 18.9 percent drop in arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds from January to June of 2018 over 2017 in counties outside New York City. Results varied — Erie County, which includes Buffalo, dropped by 21.9 percent, Albany dropped by 42.9 percent. Jefferson dropped by 35.7 percent. Each of those counties saw drops year-over-year from 2014 through 2018.
But no one seems entirely sure of why there is a decline — and not everyone is even aware that there is one.
The State Office of Children and Family Services said it could not comment on the decline in arrests and suggested reaching out to law enforcement. They did send a press release from Oct. 1 of last year outlining the training that went into implementing the law.
“Since Governor Cuomo signed the law, the state implementation team has blanketed the state with information, support and guidance,” the press release read. “The agencies trained probation officers and made presentations to county executives, administrators, social services commissioners, attorneys, mental health administrators, law enforcement, district attorneys, judges, dispute resolution professionals and public welfare officials and trade associations representing counties and public welfare workers.”
For some law enforcement agencies, the training seems to have worked.
“We haven’t changed any of our policies,” said Jefferson County Sherriff Colleen M. O’Neil. “If the arrest rate has dropped, it wouldn’t be because our agency is ignoring crimes.”
O’Neill said the changes to the law were straightforward.
“We’re just treating 16-year-olds the way we’re treating 15-year-olds before last year,” she said. “We haven’t really had any issues with the new law.”
Alex Wilson, associate counsel of the New York State Sheriff’s Association, echoed O’Neill, saying the major change was that 16-year-olds have to be held in special youth areas instead of jail when arrested.
“The biggest effect it had is just that,” he said. “The procedures are no different now than they were before Raise the Age.”
Wilson said he was surprised to hear arrest rates seemed to be declining.
“I would expect there would just be a greater use of those procedures,” he said.
The New York State Police Benevolent Association declined to comment, and several other sheriff’s offices did not respond to a request for comment.
David Condliffe, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives, an organization that provides alternatives to incarceration for youth across the state, was surprised by the decline in arrests. He thinks the reduction, whatever the cause, is likely a good thing, as incarcerating youth often leads to more criminal behavior, not less.
“We’ve seen dramatic reductions in incarceration (among youth) and dramatic reductions in crime,” he said.
Although he was not familiar with the drop in arrests of youth upstate, he speculated it might be because of the increase in resources expended – for example, transporting detained 16-year-olds to special secure facilities.
“It’s very striking to me that the police behavior may be changing,” he said. “I’m thrilled to hear it may be different … that would not be a bad outcome.”
Abe Kenmore is a political reporter with the Watertown Daily Times in Jefferson County, New York. This story was produced as part of his Raise the Age reporting fellowship with The Chronicle of Social Change, and was co-published with the Watertown Daily Times.