Last October, the State of New York began treating most 16-year-olds as juveniles in the eyes of the criminal justice system. In New York City, that change appears to have coincided with a steep drop in felony arrests, according to previously unpublished state data reviewed by The Chronicle of Social Change.
Citywide, through the first half of the year, nonviolent felony arrests were down 39 percent for 16-year-olds when compared to the same time span in 2018. Violent felony arrests dropped by 11 percent. The data were compiled by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Statistics (DCJS), based on numbers reported by police departments.
“There have been dramatic drops in arrests since 2010 for all individuals under 21, and these drops continued after Raise the Age began,” said a DCJS source. “However, they are down far more for young people than those over 21. These drops are due to a combination of changes in police response, changes in youth behavior and shifts in population. We see these declines as extremely positive.”
Arrests, summonses and stops for all ages have been dropping steadily for years in the city, along with crime. Arrests for 16- and 17-year-olds, specifically, have also been falling. (17-year-olds become eligible for Raise the Age this October.) But the decline in felony arrests for 16-year-olds this year is much steeper, compared to recent years for that age group and all others. It also pre-dates a police work slowdown that the New York Post reported may be taking place in response to last month’s firing of the officer whose chokehold of Eric Garner led to Garner’s death and widespread protests.
For 16-year-olds, violent felony arrests only fell 3 percent from the first half of 2017 to the first half of 2018, while nonviolent felonies fell 5 percent. Here’s how each borough looked comparing the first halves of 2018 and 2019:
- Violent felony arrests -12
- Nonviolent felony arrests -43
- Violent felony arrests -8
- Nonviolent felony arrests -29
- Violent felony arrests +7
- Nonviolent felony arrests -30
- Violent felony arrests -31
- Nonviolent felony arrests -59
- Violent felony arrests -9
- Nonviolent felony arrests -38
The New York Police Department specifically credited Raise the Age for the declines in lower-level arrests for 16-year-olds, mainly misdemeanors. Misdemeanor and lesser-charged cases declined 64 percent in the first three months of the law, from last October through December, according to data released by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency in June. Those arrests for 16-year-olds were not included in the DCJS data reviewed by The Chronicle.
“Historically, the Police Department has always utilized discretion to issue young people juvenile reports as an alternative to arrests for low level crimes,” said Al Baker, New York City Police Department spokesperson, in an e-mailed statement. “When the age raised so 16-year-olds were considered juveniles, they became eligible for juvenile reports, thereby leading to the drop in arrests.”
But juvenile reports are generally used for teens who may have committed misdemeanor crimes – which means they would not account for the steep drop in felony arrests, pointed out Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of and epidemiology at Columbia University who studies policing, and juvenile crime and punishment.
Fagan suggested that the decreased potential for a recorded conviction might be behind the decline in arrests for higher-level crimes.
“My guess is, if you can’t get a felony conviction because the cases are going to stay in the family court, then there’s very little incentive for the cops to arrest,” he said.
Under Raise the Age, all felonies are prosecuted at first in adult criminal court. If the alleged felony is not a violent one involving a deadly weapon, criminal sexual conduct, or significant injury to the victim, the case gets sent to family court within days absent a prosecutor’s appeal. In family court, youth face access to more services and less punitive sentences, and automatically sealed case records. All misdemeanor charges for 16-year-olds now begin in family court under Raise the Age.
Asked to specify what might explain such a steep decline for felony arrests, especially nonviolent felonies, the department did not mention Raise the Age, pointing to a wider range of in-house policy changes.
“The NYPD’s success in driving down crime with a far less-intrusive enforcement approach has led to a decrease in arrests across the board. Our anti-gun and anti-violence strategies are rooted in a focus on precision policing which features thorough investigations that identify those few individuals who are driving crime and violence in our city,” said Baker.
Other states that have raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction have seen similar declines. Between 2009 and 2016, arrests involving people younger than 18 dropped by 56 percent in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Statistical Analysis Center. The state raised its age to 18 gradually from 2007 to 2012.
“The thing that it makes you wonder about New York: If it’s a precipitous drop and it’s at a rate that’s far greater than the [ongoing] drop in crime — what was happening in these cases before? Why were they pursuing them?” added Fagan, who saw parallels between the drops in the two states.
“The $64 question is, are the crime complaints going to go up? My guess is we can live without those arrests, without compromising public safety and without stigmatizing young people with a criminal history.”