New York Officials, Advocates Praise Early Progress For Cuomo’s Youth Justice Overhaul

Riker's 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.

Nearly a year after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Raise the Age legislation moving 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult justice system,  state government officials and youth advocates say conditions are significantly improving for teens in trouble with the law.

In a report released last week, members of the Governor’s Raise the Age Implementation Task Force declared that the law had been “successfully implemented,” citing six months of data showing large declines in youth arrests, arraignments, detention and sentencing.

“The Raise the Age law has transformed the youth justice system in New York by reducing the involvement of young people in the justice system, increasing opportunities for diversion and intervention to promote successful outcomes, as well as providing age-appropriate facilities,” said Janine Kava, director of public information for New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which oversaw the reform’s county-by-county rollout alongside the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).

Under the new law, since last October 1, 16-year-olds facing misdemeanor charges have been processed in family court, which emphasize rehabilitation for youth, and keep youth court records sealed. Data collected from October to March shows that 82 percent of 16-year-olds facing felony charges were also sent to family court.

According to youth justice advocates, that statistic alone suggests the law is working.

“That is really encouraging,” said Naomi Post, executive director of the New York chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund and a member of the task force. “I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that the goals we set are being met.”

Sixteen-year-olds arrested on felony charges are still arraigned in adult criminal courts, but by specially trained judges in new courtrooms called the Youth Part. Most nonviolent felonies are automatically moved to family court within weeks, unless prosecutors convince Youth Part judges to keep the case.

About 94 percent of non-violent felony cases and 73 percent of violent felony cases ended up in family court over the law’s first six months. Post says her organization wanted 100 percent of teens’ cases moved to family court, but is pleased with how many felony defendants are making it out of the Youth Part.

Removals are not the only metric where advocates see evidence of progress. Arrests of 16-year-olds declined from October to March, accelerating a trend that began in 2010. No 16-year-olds were detained in adult prisons or jails after October 1, and 72 percent of 16-year-olds arrested on felony charges were released at arraignment, some under supervision.

Commissioners of DCJS and OCFS, Michael Green and Sheila Poole, co-chaired the 15-member task force, which also included law enforcement and advocates. The law required them to deliver last week’s report to the state’s top-two legislative leaders. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said his office is reviewing the report. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ office did not reply to requests for comment.

David M. Hoovler, the district attorney for Orange County and president of the state’s District Attorney Association, said the state should model other recent criminal justice reforms after the Raise the Age rollout.

“The law’s first year is being touted as a success and this is no doubt because of the availability of services and resources designed to redirect and rehabilitate offenders through programming, supervision and support,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “I urge our lawmakers to look at the careful planning, scrutiny and investment that is still being committed to Raise the Age and see if we can apply some of those concepts to the implementation of discovery and bail reform.”

Some Upstate Counties Resist Parts of Reform

While the task force report presents a rosy picture of the law’s first six months, preliminary data revealed differences between New York City and the rest of the state. Outside New York City, youth accused of violent felonies are remaining in the more punitive adult criminal court’s Youth Part at a higher rate than their counterparts in the city.

About 78 percent of 16-year-olds charged with violent felonies in New York City had their cases move to family court, compared to 64 percent in the rest of the state. (The handling of non-violent felony cases did not vary between the city and the rest of the state.)

Similarly, about 78 percent of New York City 16-year-olds were released upon arraignment in the Youth Part, compared to 64 percent in the rest of the state.

William Leahy, director of the state’s Office of Indigent Legal Services and a Raise the Age task force member, said he brought up these issues to the group, and hopes the state will address disparities in how cases are handled.

“The quality of justice should not depend on where their case happens to take place,” Leahy said, adding that reducing statewide inequities was a goal his task force colleagues seemed to share.

Teen suspects outside New York City have also been impacted by the availability of detention spaces compliant with new regulations created with Raise the Age.

In Onondaga County, sheriff’s deputies and Syracuse police officers refused to leave the room while Youth Part defendants met with their attorneys, citing department policy and the lack of an interview room compliant with Raise the Age supervision requirements, according to court documents. Legal Aid Services of Central New York filed a lawsuit on the teens’ behalf, and a judge issued a preliminary injunction in August requiring the county to provide a private interview room.

Some teens around the state are being detained pre-trial far from their families and lawyers. About a third of 16-year-olds sent to detention outside New York City were sent more than a county away, with some sent hours from home. In 55 counties, there is no “specialized secure detention facility” certified to hold teens with higher-level criminal cases in the Youth Part.

Monica Mahaffey, assistant commissioner for communications at OCFS, said out-of-county placements were already routine for younger teens who were sent to detention while their cases were processed in family court. Further, she said the early months of Raise the Age extended a decade-long decline in the use of detention, demonstrating that community-based alternatives to detention are working.

Still, Mahaffey said state and local agencies are looking into ways to mitigate the consequences of detaining teens far from home.

“Moving forward, some counties are considering an expansion of bed capacity or construction of a new facility, based upon need. The state is also exploring the use of video interface to connect youth to their families when they are placed further from home,” Mahaffey said.

Advocates have previously told The Chronicle they hope the state focuses on increasing community-based programming for youth instead of creating more detention space.

The Next Phase of Implementation

Despite perceived early success for Raise the Age, stakeholders are bracing themselves for 17-year-olds to follow 16-years-olds into the juvenile justice system starting in October.

“With the 17-year-olds, it’s not just one extra year, it’s one year older as well. It’s like having that second child if you’re a parent. It’s more than twice as hard,” said Leahy, who was impressed by the first year of implementation but believes “the real challenge is coming.”

Meridith Sopher, a vice president at the New York City nonprofit Sheltering Arms, which runs non-secure detention facilities, among other family services, said supporting 17-year-olds returning to the community will bring new challenges.

“The biggest adjustment will be for youth who come to us and get discharged to live independently instead of living with family members. How do we ensure that they continue to get the same kind of support in aftercare?”

Counties are responsible for making sure those services will be available for the 17-year-olds – alongside expanded alternatives to detention, and youth-specific detention. But the state funds much of that work.

Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York Association of Counties, has been assisting county governments adapting to Raise the Age. He said the counties expect to secure reimbursement funds allocated in the state budget for Raise the Age.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the governor, state agencies, and the state legislature to ensure proper implementation of the law, and full funding of RTA-related county costs is part of the 2019-20 state budget,” Acquario said.

In an e-mailed statement, he added that “by all accounts, we believe implementation has been a smooth process up to this point.”

The Raise the Age Implementation Task Force is scheduled to deliver a second report next August, covering the law’s first year and the first six months of phase two.

“The challenge will be to sustain progress towards more humane treatment of kids, because with my decades of public defense, I know there’s always a backlash,” said Leahy of the state’s indigent defense support office. “It’s hard to keep going through the challenges, which you can’t script. They will surface.”

Michael Fitzgerald contributed reporting to this story. 

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