New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Raise the Age (RTA) reform law was intended to overhaul the justice system for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes — mandating a new, rehabilitation-focused network of detention facilities, court rooms and punishments for teens who are arrested. Almost a year into the law’s implementation, however, far fewer teens appear to be entering the system at all. The number arrested for felonies dropped significantly statewide in the first six months of this year, according to previously unpublished state data shared with The Chronicle of Social Change.
Between January and June of this year, 1,030 16-year-olds were arrested for a nonviolent or violent felony. That’s a nearly 25 percent decline from the same six months in 2018, when there were 1,369 arrests.
Arrests of youth younger than 21 have been falling steadily since 2010, coinciding with arrests overall declining across the state. Through the first half of 2019, though, the decline accelerated for 16-year-olds who had to be segregated from adults throughout the justice system as of last October 1. From 2017 to 2018, by comparison, those arrests only fell by 7 percent.
The data reviewed by The Chronicle was collected from local police departments by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which assists counties with Raise the Age implementation. The agency declined to comment, but a DCJS source said they see the declining arrests as “extremely positive,” and likely a result of a “combination of changes in police response, changes in youth behavior and shifts in population.”
New York City saw a 24 percent drop in arrests of 16-year-olds for all felonies between last year and this year (from 867 to 658) , while 17-year-old arrests actually increased from 953 to 1,008. In Queens, nonviolent felony arrests alone were down 60 percent for 16-year-olds; in the Bronx, 43 percent.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office referred questions to the New York City Police Department, which did not respond by press time.*
Law enforcement officials and advocates who spoke to The Chronicle were not sure whether the decline in arrests is directly correlated to New York’s new rules for teens.
Alex Wilson, associate counsel of the New York State Sheriff’s Association, previously told The Chronicle that Raise the Age’s requirements for 16-year-olds to be held in tailored youth facilities instead of adult jails seemed unlikely to change the number of arrests.
“The procedures are no different now than they were before Raise the Age” for youth 15-years-old and younger, he said. “I would expect there would just be [more frequent] use of those procedures.”
But other law enforcement officials say that the overhaul created time-consuming hurdles, which could be discouraging police from arresting some 16-year-olds.
Lieutenant Mark Goodspeed of the Buffalo Police Department told The Chronicle that Buffalo’s juvenile detention facility often tells police officers they can’t take newly arrested 16-year-olds after hours, because they are full with younger teens.
“We’ve fought with them many times,” he said of the Erie County Youth Bureau, which manages the only detention space nearby certified by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. “There’s nowhere else to take [teens] unless we want to drive to some place outside Syracuse.”
In the morning, if a judge orders a teen to be placed in the facility in Northeast Buffalo, then the Youth Bureau must take them immediately. At night, however, judges often do not respond to phone calls from law enforcement, leaving cops to babysit until morning, says the lieutenant.
“We’re talking six, seven hours of your night for a bullshit misdemeanor, what’s the point of making an arrest? It’s a kinder, gentler world we live in I guess. It’s mindboggling,” said Goodspeed, who is also a police union vice president. “Raise the Age was a great idea but they didn’t have a plan.”
In some cases 16-year-olds sleep in the police department’s new youth interrogation rooms.
“We’ll give them some food,” added Goodspeed.
In Erie County — including Buffalo — felony arrests of 16-year-olds fell 17 percent. The Erie County Youth Bureau did not respond to requests for comment. The Chronicle reached out to the state’s Office of Court Administration, which oversees the courts, for comment on the availability of judges after hours.
“We don’t speculate about the decline in arrests which is driven by law enforcement actions. Early in RTA implementation, however, we heard complaints about lack of accessible magistrates for off hours in one jurisdiction outside New York City and it was addressed by court leaders. We haven’t heard recent complaints about that,” wrote spokesperson Lucian Chalfen in an e-mail.
“Also it’s a local law enforcement and executive branch obligation to maintain suitable post-arrest spaces pursuant to Raise the Age. That’s not for the courts to address.”
Advocates supportive of Raise the Age say declining arrests are to be expected — a positive consequence of the reform.
“We have seen this phenomenon in a number of states and it contributes to a smooth implementation of Raise the Age here and in other states,” said Vincent Schiraldi, former probation commissioner of New York City, who now co-leads the Columbia University Justice Lab. “I suspect, but can’t prove, that this is more about adults redefining these young people as youth who deserve a second chance, rather than irredeemable. That contributes to them not getting arrested for less serious offenses. It should force us to examine arrest patterns for adults, particularly young adults.”
Raise the Age passed as part of a bipartisan budget deal in 2017, after a federal investigation into New York State’s youth justice facilities, and intense debate in a divided legislature. Since 2006, 13 other states have passed laws raising the age above which youth can be prosecuted as adults.
Whatever the reason for the declining arrests, it is happening statewide. Across New York for all offenses except misdemeanors — including felonies, and traffic law violations — arrests dropped 31 percent, from 7,791 arrests January to June of 2017, to 5,315 during the same time frame in 2019. (Under Raise the Age, police are no longer allowed to fingerprint and report 16-year-olds for misdemeanor offenses alone.)
The statewide drop is not being driven by New York City, either — felony arrests for 16-year-olds were down 26 percent for the rest of the state, excluding New York City. The trend shows up even more dramatically in one large county outside New York City. In Monroe County, which includes Rochester, felony arrests of 16-year-olds fell nearly 53 percent.
Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, bucked the trend. There were 71 felony arrests for 16-year-olds in the first half of 2019, significantly more than in 2018 (31) or 2017 (41). At the same time, arrests of 17-year-olds in the county fell.
The Chronicle requested comment from the Syracuse Police Department, Onondaga County Sheriff and the District Attorney’s office, and law enforcement officials in Monroe County, and none of them had responded by press time.
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. Michael Fitzgerald is the New York Editor for the Chronicle of Social Change.
*CORRECTION, Wednesday, August 21: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office had not responded to requests for comment. They did, referring the Chronicle to NYPD.