Raise the Age in New York State: Controversial Legislation Fails to Pass Five Years in a Row but Advocates are Hopeful 2017 is the Year

pexels-photo-25984Ah, New York: Apples, long snowy winters and, of course, gridlock in Albany.

For the past few months, lawmakers have been hammering out a budget that in typical New York fashion went nowhere. The legislature failed to meet its April 1 deadline and in response Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an extender, which would ensure the state government doesn’t shut down and also extends certain state programs through May.

Caught in the crossfire? Raise the Age legislation, which would raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York to 18. Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can be tried and housed with adult offenders, which critics have long said is harmful to adolescent offenders.

However, Raise the Age has failed to pass five years in a row and this year, lawmakers aren’t jumping to pass it. The legislation, tucked into the budget, was met with immediate backlash. Failure to pass the legislation would leave New York as one of the last states to prosecute adolescents as adults- though North Carolina is in the process of  passing bipartisan legislation to raise the age there (Editor’s Note: Once passed, New York will be the only state). However, critics of the legislation said the vast majority of youth offenders in the state aren’t criminally charged; they actually have their cases dismissed, adjourned for much later, or have their records sealed, according to William Fitzpatrick, a Syracuse District Attorney.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” he told Syracuse, a Syracuse news site.

However, advocates believe there should be sound rules in place to protect youth and that they shouldn’t have to depend on the benevolence of a District Attorney and judge. Instead, they argue, by their very nature of being adolescents, they should be protected. Of course this doesn’t include violent crimes, like murder and sexual assault. And almost all states have a process to charge youth offenders as adults for violent crimes, so even if passed, advocates said there is a way to ensure offenders are dealt justice.

“Whenever you want to change something, it’s hard,” said Stephanie Pujols, an on-the-ground activist trying to raise awareness locally about the legislation. “We’re one of just two states to be so harsh on adolescents and the critics keep saying ‘oh, you want to let them off.’ No, we don’t, we just want to make sure they’re getting appropriate punishment.”

“It’s a disappointment that our elected officials have been unable to come to an agreement on a budget that includes smart-on-crime legislation that would reduce recidivism and protect public safety. Until they do so, New York will continue to lag behind the rest of the country,” stated Raise the Age, an official state organization working to change the law.

Raise the Age cleared the Assembly back in February, but then faced a wall in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers accused Democratic representatives of “coddling murderers and rapists.” However, it’s not a traditionally partisan issue because many lawmakers can actually be found on the other side. Conservative lawmakers also had the backing of the Independent Democratic Caucus, an eight member coalition that promised in January to formally back the GOP this year.

“For far too long New York has been one of only two states where the age of criminal responsibility is 16-years-old. I have seen first hand in my community the effects that this has had on teens now and for their futures.  I am confident that we will be able to implement these reforms and I look forward to working with the IDC to accomplish this goal,” said Senator Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn.

And among New Yorkers, there is overwhelming support to raise the age. A Quinnipiac poll found that among almost all gender, racial and education groups, there was support to raise the age. Only one group was actually against the legislation; Republicans. In a lengthy statement, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie addressed Conservative concerns, stating:

From the very beginning, I have very clearly stated that our goal was to ensure that young people who are accused of non-violent crimes are not sent to adult criminal court. Unfortunately, some Senators have chosen to engage in a fear campaign that falsely accuses Assembly Democrats of coddling murderers and rapists in the context of this issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Productive discussions about how to reach our goal are ongoing, so it is disappointing to read these kinds of statements which do not represent the real progress we have made.

We have seen firsthand the devastating consequences of families torn apart and lives cut short by an ineffective policy of throwing children into adult prisons for non-violent crimes. Raising the age is not about a “free pass.” Rather, it is about adopting age appropriate alternatives to address these cases. Thoughtful and responsible public policy has been adopted in 48 other states and it is unconscionable that any New Yorker would want to continue this abhorrent practice.”

“I can only hope that we wouldn’t be the only state out there that hasn’t seen the light,” said state Assemblyman Joe Lentol in a March feature in Politico, who sponsors his chamber’s raise the age bill. “But nothing ever amazes me here.””

So how would the bill work? Over the span of 2 and a half years, the age of prosecution would increase by one year each year until the age of prosecution is 18 at the start of 2020. The bill would require these adolescents be instead tried in Family Court, which critics have said burdens an already stretched and burdened institution. In the state of NY, Family Court is already heavily burdened by custody, protection and other issues . This law wouldn’t help. It also raises the lower juvenile jurisdiction from seven to 12 for all offenses except homicide and overall the exact breakdown of which offenses should be tried as an adult are up for debate.

“I think it’s a symbolic move, which we don’t need gunking up the budget process,” said Caleb Brown, a 19th Ward resident, discussing the budget.”If we know youth are often seen as youth and given reduced sentences, then why do we need to pass legislation saying we’ll do this. We already do. This is New York and we’re progressive here. We do these things and holding up the budget just to put it in writing is not only bad politics, but bad thinking period…We’re asking too much of an already strained system.”

Despite bickering over whether Raise the Age would actually have any effect, some are focusing on well-known cases that it could’ve prevented. The measures being discussed would have saved Kalief Browder’s life who at age 16 was arrested for allegedly stealing a book bag. His family was unable to afford his $3,000 bail so he ended up at Rikers Island (which is actually in the process of closing). There, he was held in solitary confinement for a total of years, and told it was for his own protection. He was also beaten and received mental and emotional abuse. In a documentary series, produced by Jay-Z, Browder discussed how he began to lose his grip on reality, eventually talking to himself and hallucinating. He attempted suicide multiple times but succeeded on June 6, 2015 at age 22.

“This is New York and we’re progressive here. We do these things and holding up the budget just to put it in writing is not only bad politics, but bad thinking period”- Brown

“We know youth are caught in this,” said Pujols. “A lot of Republicans are saying ‘well, we don’t do that anyway,’ but we do. If you say 90 percent of youth, or whatever they think the number is, are let off anyway, well what happens to the other 10 percent? We know they aren’t all murderers, some are caught up in a system where DA’s have too many cases, the judges were elected to be hard on crime, or whatever, and they’re caught in the political fire. This would ensure that all of our youth are protected, not just the majority.”


Albany lawmakers are expected to vote today.

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