When Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the juvenile justice law known as “Raise the Age” in April 2017, advocates celebrated that New York would finally catch up to other states moving 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult courts and lockups. But some prosecutors expressed concerns about the costs and public safety without opposing the bill entirely.
Now, months into the law’s implementation, district attorneys from New York’s largest counties say they are improvising to navigate what they call a complex new court process without funding for new staff so far.
New York was the second-to-last state in the nation to raise the so-called age of juvenile jurisdiction over 16. Five states have raised the age in the last 12 years after a wave of tough-on-crime legislation in preceding decades pushed the youth population in adult jails and prisons up to nearly 15,000 in the late 1990s. New York, unlike some states that have raised the age, opted to originate all felony cases in new youth sections within the adult court, with opportunities for removal down to family court. The law went into effect for 16-year-olds last October, and will go into effect for 17-year-olds this October.
“Although the case counts have not been overwhelming, each case has required significantly more time due to new Youth Part procedures,” wrote Kaitlyn Munro, spokesperson from the office of John Flynn, Erie County district attorney, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change, referring to new youth-specific courtrooms created within the adult court. “As a result, the Youth Part attorneys did not have the time to handle additional felony matters. That in turn increased the workload on other felony level assistant district attorneys.”
The spokesperson added that the office would “wait and see” how much extra work the 17-year-olds’ cases require before deciding whether to hire new attorneys, which may be eligible for state-funded reimbursement.
“Erie County has not yet received any reimbursement from the state, but we are looking into it,” Munro said.
The Albany County District Attorneys’ office – led by David Soares, who also heads the statewide district attorneys’ association – says it has requested a funding increase, which includes support for a new attorney to work in the Youth Part for next year.
“Some of that is more in relation to overall changes in the criminal justice system in this last legislative session,” said Cecilia Walsh, spokesperson for the Albany County District Attorneys’ office, referring to a series of major court reforms included in the budget this year, including reforms to bail and discovery, and new requirements for speedier trials.
A Monroe County prosecutor working in the Youth Part, Daniel Strollo, whose office opposed Raise the Age, echoed that they might need more help soon, too.
“Come October,” when the law goes into effect for 17-year-olds, “our numbers are going to go up a lot. We’re going to have to take a look at how we handle case distributions.”
Of the 215 felony arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds in Monroe County through the first six months of 2017 and 2018, 113 of them were 17-year-olds, according to Department to of Criminal Justice Services data.
Among the most significant changes in the law, starting last October 1 for 16-year-olds, were the requirements to have violent and nonviolent felony cases heard in the state’s rehabilitation-oriented family courts. The new guidelines stated that felony cases would begin in the adult court’s new Youth Part, with opportunities for removing those cases to family court. Removal would be automatic for nonviolent felony cases, unless prosecutors convinced judges otherwise; for most violent felonies, prosecutors would have the option to permit or deny removal. These guidelines were some of the most contested parts of the reform.
“New York does remain an outlier in terms of presuming all 16-year-olds with felonies should originate in adult court, and be waived back,” said Marcy Mistrett, executive director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which advocates for states to raise the age nationwide. “We believe that all children deserve to originate in family court with the burden on the state to prove they belong elsewhere.”
To adapt to the new procedures, Onondaga County has approved an increase in employment for the district attorney’s office, according to Assistant District Attorney Alison Fineberg.
“I’m having to play catch-as-catch-can,” said Fineberg. “Right now, I’m doing a lot of the work myself just to keep the process going.” She explained that while stakeholders in the community have played an active effort in planning for the treatment of juveniles, the county could still use more people as the process expands.
While new hiring has been proposed, current staff has gone through a training program on how to work with the new population of youth.
In response to a question about whether Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. planned to hire new attorneys to work in the Youth Part, Press Secretary Justin Henry said via e-mail that “our office has not requested funding for the implementation of the state’s Raise the Age law and, as of now, we do not anticipate any future funding requests.” He added that Vance “has been a vocal supporter” of Raise the Age.
Michael Fitzgerald contributed reporting to this story.