First in a two-part examination of the Raise the Age Law in New York. Read part 2 here.
In a budget hearing last month in the New York state capital, a Finger Lakes Republican senator pushed the state’s top child and family services official, Commissioner Sheila Poole, to explain if it was true what he’d heard, that older gang members were exploiting teenagers to commit crimes with guns. Under state law since 2017, only adults 18 and older face the more serious penalties of adult court.
Sen. Thomas O’Mara (R) echoed a recent concern raised by Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams — that the law is being used by adult gang members who are “victimizing children by forcing them to carry the weapons.”
In the wake of high-profile shootings, such as the death of a teenage girl and the killing of a city police officer, Adams is calling for rollbacks of the state’s pivotal “Raise the Age” reform law, which ended the routine prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
New York City, along with other parts of the state and nation, has seen an uptick in crime during the pandemic, presenting new challenges to previously passed justice reforms.
But few members of the New York Legislature’s Democratic majority have agreed with Adams and the Republicans on rolling back Raise the Age. One of the biggest questions that remains is the stance of Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who supported the reform law before its passage but has yet to publicly stake a position.
In February, Poole, commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, responded to the self-proclaimed law-and-order Senator O’Mara, a former Chemung County District Attorney. Poole said she had not heard of younger teens being set up for gun crimes by older criminals looking to escape harsher punishments. She added that New Yorkers should differentiate between “what’s happening now in our world” and the law passed several years ago.
“We have to be very careful in not conflating what’s happening around gun violence with throwing the baby out with the bath water on Raise the Age,” Poole told lawmakers.
Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a rise in some types of crime, including the national murder rate. According to FBI data, New York’s violent crime rate is lower than the national rate, but since 2019 both have followed an upward trend.
In announcing his “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” in January, Adams said more 16- and 17-year-olds caught with guns — whether they are displayed during the commission of a crime or not — should be prosecuted as adults. He wants to extend the same fate to teens caught with guns who fail to tell police where they got the weapons.
The changes to the firearm-related portions of the Raise the Age law Adams proposed has the backing of police unions and Republican lawmakers, but has received only scant support in the Legislature so far.
Adams then took his case to the state capitol last month. At a Feb. 9 budget hearing for local governments, he told legislators that “the law is being used to victimize our youth.”
A pending bill by two Republican Staten Island lawmakers — Assemblymember Michael Reilly, a former police lieutenant, and Assemblymember Michael Tannousis, a former assistant district attorney — would make the changes Adams seeks.
“The sole intent of this legislation is to provide a measure of safety to our neighborhoods and hold criminal actors to an appropriate standard of accountability relative to the crime committed,” Reilly stated in a Jan. 24 press release. “It’s time to take off the kid gloves and finally close the revolving door that allows youthful offenders to repeatedly commit acts of violence.”
Leading Democrats in the state Legislature have said they have a shared concern about rising crime, but they don’t believe rolling back significant juvenile justice reforms is the solution. At the time Raise the Age was passed, New York was one of just two states that still prosecuted 16-and 17-year-olds as adults.
“It’s very easy for us to say, ‘Claw back this, don’t do that,’” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said at a recent press conference. “But we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of these problems.”
Following Adams’ visit to Albany, the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and Youth Represent released a joint statement praising state lawmakers for protecting the law.
“We call on our elected officials to continue to reject this invitation to revisit the Raise the Age law, and to pass a budget that centers on young people and advances a public health response to gun violence,” the statement read. The groups called on elected leaders to “stay focused on the critical task at hand — they must adopt a budget that makes sorely needed investments in New York’s youth, ensuring access to behavioral health care, employment, youth development, as well violence-reduction programming that is rooted in communities and centers credible messengers.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.