New York “Raised the Age” of Criminal Responsibility this Week. It’s a Major Reform. Is the State Ready?

Kalief Browder Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs a major juvenile justice reform in the spring of 2017 alongside Akeem Browder, the brother of former Riker’s detainee Kalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide caused international outcry about the danger of holding youth in adult jails.

New York politicians and youth advocates celebrated a major juvenile justice reform this week. The state was one of only two that treated all older teens as adults in the eyes of the law until Monday, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s landmark policy known as Raise the Age went into effect. 16-year-old arrestees can no longer be sent through adult courts and detention; 17-year-olds will join them in settings designed for youth next year. Everyone under 18 had been moved off the notorious Riker’s Island by 3 p.m. Sunday.

But as the new law’s starting date came and went, most New York counties had yet to submit required plans for the complex new law. According to the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which is responsible for enforcing juvenile justice regulations, only 29 out of 62 counties had submitted plans detailing how they would pay for the increase in 16- and 17-year-olds flooding family courts and youth detention centers. Counties will not be able to tap into $100 million in state funding for Raise the Age-related costs without OCFS-approved plans.

A spokesperson for OCFS confirmed a mix of counties with large and small populations had yet to submit, but declined to share a list with The Chronicle of Social Change.

The agency’s Cuomo-appointed acting commissioner, Sheila Poole downplayed the significance of the missing plans in an interview last Thursday afternoon, at which point 25 counties had submitted drafts for feedback.

“October 1 is not going to be a seismic event. The ramp-up of the implementation of Raise the Age will take a number of months,” Poole said. “Not every county will experience anything on October 1, because the likelihood of a 16-year-old being arrested is low in many, many places throughout the state.”

State officials last year in their own Raise the Age guidelines “strongly encouraged” counties to submit plan drafts with budget estimates by December 31 of last year. Counties have had more detailed fiscal planning tools since June.

Statewide, advocates for youth and public officials hailed the beginning of a new era in juvenile justice, with joint statements released by Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Every state has policies that allow youths accused of certain offenses (especially older teens) to be transferred from the juvenile justice system and tried as adults. But – inspired by broad consensus among psychologists that youth offenders have greater prospects for reform – the number of states that had a so-called age of jurisdiction under 18 fell from 14 in 2007 to just four today. New York and North Carolina were the only two that also considered 16-year-olds to be adults.

Advocates here remained concerned about pockets of resistance to raising the age, especially in counties still sending some teens to faraway detention facilities.

“If you’re 16 and arrested the first time in your life, who do you want to see? Your family and your criminal defense lawyer,” said David Condliffe, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. “But if you’re coming from Binghamton, two hours away [from a youth detention center in Westchester], that makes a traumatic event even worse.

As of this week, at least 12 counties covering nearly 9,000 square miles would rely on Westchester’s Woodfield Cottage, according to a spokesperson for the County Executive George Latimer. The office of the Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney confirmed that up to 18 surrounding counties were expected to place youth in the Hillbrook facility near Syracuse. Monroe County, home to Rochester, may receive youth from 10 other counties at its specialized secure facility.

“Sheila [Poole] is very familiar with Close to Home” – a highly regarded program that moved New York City youth detained in upstate OCFS facilities back into the city – “but Raise the Age is not looking like Close to Home,” said a former official who worked with Poole to design Close to Home.

Absent more creative planning, Condliffe argued, dozens of counties seemed to be settling for easy options.

“We’re talking about a small number of kids affected but I’m not sure this meets the spirit of the legislation,” Condliffe added. “I hope it will force judges to be very thoughtful about whether a 16-year-old needs to be detained at all before their trial, and more counties will get creative about local housing options.”

Nevertheless, Poole was categorical in emphasizing the positives last week.

“What’s been exciting is to see those counties and regions who for a number of years have been working collaboratively – local probation, social services law enforcement, nonprofit providers – there has been a lot of work done on the local level,” Poole said.

She added that it’s too early in the implementation process to begin weighing future changes to the law.

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 72 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Follow me on Twitter: @mchlftzgrld