This week, the new mayor of New York City delivered his plan to combat gun violence, by laying out what he’d experienced his first three weeks in office.
In a City Hall press conference Monday, Mayor Eric Adams said he’d met with the mother of a 19-year-old who was killed in East Harlem while working a night shift at Burger King, and sat at the bedside of a police officer shot by a 16-year-old as they struggled for a gun.
“I have seen a toddler’s blood-stained pink jacket in the street,” he also told constituents. “I have held hands and prayed with her mother.”
Addressing what he called a “public health crisis,” Adams — a former longtime New York City police officer — has released a 15-page “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” aimed at reassuring city residents. But among the policies he promoted Monday were challenges to carefully crafted juvenile justice reforms that limit the prosecutions of 16- and 17-year-olds, enacted after years of advocacy. Adams didn’t include much detail, describing in fewer than 200 words how he wants more older teens caught with guns prosecuted as adults, and more youth cooperation in identifying their weapons’ origins following arrests.
His proposed changes would require state lawmakers to revisit hard-fought legislation approved in 2017 known as “Raise the Age.” But two champions of the law, Democrats who now lead the state Assembly and Senate, declined this week to support rollbacks.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins explained her reasoning, citing the science on adolescent brain development: “What you do when you’re 16 or 15 or whatever, is not what you would do with a fully mature brain in many instances,” the Yonkers senator said in a press conference.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, who was instrumental in passage of the Raise the Age, suggested Adams look in-house to address the “scourge of gun violence.”
“One area he can take immediate action is to review and improve pretrial services in the probation department which he oversees,” Heastie said in a statement.
In his Monday address, Mayor Adams said his administration “is not seeking to punish young people — but when it comes to guns, we must make sure there are consequences.” His recommendations call for the Legislature to change only the firearm-related portions of Raise the Age law.
The law prohibits automatic adult criminal cases against 16- and 17-year-olds facing all but the most serious charges. At the time the law was passed, New York was one of only two states that automatically prosecuted 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Adams previously supported the Raise the Age legislation, the Gothamist website reported Thursday. But now, he said, the law “is being used as a loophole for gang members,” stating that “children are being used as pawns,” with “far too many” adults “victimizing children by forcing them to carry the weapons.”
When older teens are arrested on gun charges, the mayor said, police should ask where they got the gun, and if they don’t respond, “prosecutors should have the ability to charge the individual in criminal court, rather than family court.”
The mayor’s plan also argues that possession of a gun — regardless of whether it is displayed or used in a crime — should be enough to guarantee that 16- and 17-year-olds’ felony cases remain in criminal court. “The public display of the gun should not be a factor as it is under current legislation; the carrying of a gun should be treated the same way whether the individual displays it or not,” Adams’ blueprint for gun violence states.
Raise the Age passed five years ago after a decade-long push by justice advocates to keep older teens out of brutal lockups like Rikers Island. It also allows them to have their cases handled as juveniles in family court — where rehabilitation is the focus and records are sealed — instead of as adults in the more punitive criminal court.
Under current law, 16- and 17-year-olds’ felony cases start in criminal court. But there are only three allegations that can prevent their transfer to family court after arraignment: A violent offense causing significant injury, a sexual offense or “displaying a deadly weapon.”
In rare cases, prosecutors can also try to convince judges that “extraordinary circumstances” exist, such as when an older teen is found to have committed many crimes in rapid succession. The Imprint’s 2020 analysis of statewide criminal court data shows judges are rejecting those arguments from prosecutors more often than not.
Adams wants more youth caught with guns to remain in adult criminal court, even if none of the above criteria have been met.
His arguments follow tragic gun deaths as well as law enforcement criticisms of Raise the Age, which have increased over the past year along with an uptick in some violent crimes during the pandemic. Prosecutors have argued to keep more violent gun crimes in adult court, and just last month the state association of police chiefs rallied in Albany, proposing legislation to roll back a number of progressive justice reforms passed by the Legislature, including Raise the Age.
Police unions and Republican lawmakers in New York strongly supported Adams’ proposal this week.
Congressmember Nicole Malliotakis (R) posted on Facebook that she was “pleased to hear that Mayor Adams is taking action,” noting his efforts to beef up patrols, limit bail reforms, tackle gangs and gun violence, and seek changes to “the ‘Raise the Age’ law that has become more like a gang recruitment act.”
According to the New York City Police Department, gun arrests increased 14% in 2021 compared to 2020.
But justice advocates shot back on the mayor’s comments on that statistic too, saying gun violence rates are lower than rates in 2000, when all 16- and 17-year-olds were prosecuted as adults regardless of the charges. They also argued that the rollback of justice reforms following sensational crimes only causes more harm to Black and brown youth.
“New York spent decades treating children as adults in the criminal courts with no correlation to reduced crime rates. The facts are that during the first eighteen months of the Raise the Age law, shootings in New York City remained the lowest they have been in decades, even as arrests and incarceration of 16- and 17-year-olds declined,” read a joint statement released by the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, Youth Represent, and Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. “Only after months of COVID-19 infections, deaths, and lockdowns, did gun violence increase in New York City, as it did in many cities around the country where criminal justice reforms had not been enacted.”
The Legal Aid Society called Mayor Adams’ proposed changes to the landmark 2017 Raise the Age reform “ill-advised.”
“The current law already allows for cases of gun possession to be retained in the adult court system,” read a statement, adding, “further rollbacks only risk undermining effective strategies for supporting young New Yorkers and addressing historical racial disparities.”
The legal advocacy groups support the mayor’s pledges to invest in mental health care and summer employment for youth. In an opinion piece, Children’s Defense Fund New York’s Executive Director Kercena Dozier called on Adams to address gun violence through a public health, anti-poverty strategy, not “strategies that dilute effective reforms and fail to get at the root causes of violence through short-sighted legislative roll-backs.” Pastor Michael A. Walrond, Jr., senior pastor of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church Harlem, co-authored the piece.
Adams’ Monday speech highlighted “reaching young people long before they turn to guns and violence.” It also included his ongoing support for a program that matches thousands of current and former and foster youth with a paid mentor to help them navigate the transition to adulthood.
“It is important that I speak to you about the issue of our young people in foster care,” Adams said. He described them as young people “entrusted to our city,” roughly 500 to 600 who “age out of the system each year without a consistent adult to rely on.”
Noting the small number graduating high school and high rates of homelessness for former foster youth, Adams said programs such as Fair Futures — which provides life coaches for young people through age 21 — must be expanded.
There are more than 7,000 young people entrusted to New York City’s child welfare system. Former foster youth are more likely than their peers to end up incarcerated, homeless and struggling for economic security and proper health care — outcomes Fair Futures aims to avoid.
The nonprofit initiative has been in New York City since 2019. It now involves youth under the supervision of all 26 city foster care agencies, with 450 staff including life coaches, tutors and specialists who help with everything from homework to landing jobs. During the pandemic, nearly 3,000 young people received mentoring from the program, with 85% achieving goals related to academics, career or independent living, according to the Fair Futures advocacy campaign.
Elected officials, advocates and foster youth rallied Tuesday, calling on the city to allocate $35 million for Fair Futures in the upcoming budget cycle. Advocates said they are pushing for a $15 million increase over current year’s funding to expand the program to all eligible young people through age 26, and to ensure each young person is assigned to a housing specialist.
“Youth lack the proper resources and funding to be successful,” said Elan Sahalon, a 25-year-old former foster youth who spoke in support of Fair Futures at Tuesday’s rally. Sahalon described struggling with housing instability, getting on track with school and finding a direction for his life. “I know because I was one of them.”