Second in a two-part examination of the Raise the Age Law in New York. Read part 1 here.
Seeking ways to combat a rise in violent crimes during the first year of the pandemic, some lawmakers in New York are proposing revisions to the state’s landmark law that raised the age of automatic criminal prosecution to 18.
The 2017 law brought the state in line with virtually all other states that treat young teens — whose impulse control and brains are still developing — differently from adults when they break the law.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams and a handful of Republican state lawmakers want gun crimes prosecuted more harshly for 16- and 17-year-olds. Even some supporters of the law, known as Raise the Age, say while it is a sound juvenile justice reform, it may need some tweaks when it comes to kids caught in possession of guns.
But critics say the attempts to process more kids as adults is a political ploy to pacify a nervous electorate — and is not supported by fact. In an op-ed published today in The New York Times, Gladys Carrión, a former commissioner of New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of the city’s Correction and Probation departments, state that rolling back Raise the Age reforms would be “a grievous mistake.”
They point to “a large body of research” from around the country revealing that trying more youth in adult courts “is associated with more, not less, crime.” And they caution that “politicians are leaping to facile conclusions and taking it out on an easy target — young people of color.”
A day prior, at Wednesday’s city council meeting, New York City Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Jess Dannhauser said a growing number of teens in detention centers he oversees are not being held due to firearms possession — rather, due to COVID-19 and the backed-up courts.
“We are not seeing the major driver of the increase in children in our youth detention facilities being the gun violence,” he said. “We’re seeing the length of stay be the primary driver.” Dannhauser also stated his commitment to keeping the 2017 reform law intact, noting: “We want to make sure we continue to implement Raise the Age.”
The Raise the Age law took effect on Oct. 1, 2018 for 16-year-olds, and one year later for 17-year-olds.
When those teens are charged with a felony, the case is first heard in the “Youth Part” of adult criminal court. This division exclusively hears cases of those younger than 18, with judges specially trained in youth development. Judges then decide whether or not to move the adolescent’s case from adult criminal court to Family Court, depending on the severity of the crime and context, such as a prior record.
Cases held in the Youth Part involve victims who were significantly harmed, crimes involving the display of a firearm or sexual offenses, and a smaller number of other “extraordinary circumstances.” Most non-violent felonies are removed to the Family Court, where all teen misdemeanor cases are also heard.
The purpose of the Raise the Age law was to ensure that more youth would benefit from the Family Court’s rehabilitative focus and sealed records policies. The law also barred all minors from adult correctional settings, with few exceptions.
Impact of raising the age
What is known about the impact of raising the age of criminal prosecution on crime and public safety? The Imprint took a look at the data available. Here’s what was most significant:
Soon after Raise the Age was passed, a team of court watchers observed 473 cases over 600 hours. The Youth Justice Research Collaborative involved advocates from Youth Represent, the Public Science Project at the CUNY Graduate Center, Children’s Defense Fund-New York and the Citizens’ Committee for Children.
The study was conducted over a four-month period in the summer and fall of 2019 — at a time when crime was decreasing. According to state data, youth arrests in New York State were the lowest they’d been in decades. From 2010 to 2017, arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds decreased 54% in New York; they dropped further immediately after the Raise the Age law was passed, before it had gone into effect.
During the first year of the law’s implementation in New York City, arrests of 16-year-olds decreased 41% over the prior year. But there were alarming qualitative findings as well, even as the state aimed to make its treatment of youthful offenders more age-appropriate. The courtroom observers and research associated found “dehumanizing courtroom environments” and “extreme racial disparities,” although youth were less likely to be handcuffed and surrounded by officers in Family Court appearances.
The New York City Criminal Justice Agency has been tracking cases as well, and has released a series of reports with similar findings — and some updated information. The state data agency looked at arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds from October 2018 through March 2019, and compared them with arrests in the same timeframe the following year — the second year that Raise the Age took effect, one marked by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency’s December 2020 study found that the number of 17-year-olds arrested dropped from 1,941 to 1,315 the next year. After an initial hearing, 82% of teens were released on their own recognizance or under some form of supervision like electronic monitoring. A majority of the cases — more than 8 in 10 — were moved from the Youth Part to Family Court.
Late last year however, the criminal justice agency reported that nearly half of the 16-year-olds arrested in the first year of the law had been re-arrested by Jan. 31, 2020. More than a quarter were arrested for violent felonies, rates that were higher than before Raise the Age went into effect.
Yet that finding was limited in scope: The study examined only the few, higher-level violent felony cases for teens that remain in the criminal court’s Youth Part — not those switched to Family Court.
And according to an article published by The Albany Times Union, taking full measure of pretrial services and monitoring of youth who’ve been arrested is complicated. In cases handled in Family Courts, probation departments “apparently do not track the rates of rearrest or the number of times young offenders violate the terms of their release,” the newspaper reported. The outlet found that Albany County’s probation department, along with others in the state, does not track rearrests or “noncompliance” by 16- and 17-year-olds.
In addition, one top prosecutor in New York told the Albany Times-Union that necessary rehabilitative programs haven’t materialized under Raise the Age, with possible impacts on the increased rearrests of teens.
“I was there when all the deals were made,” Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler told the paper about the early legislative efforts. “There was all sorts of promises of services with Raise the Age.”
To be sure, the pandemic years of 2019 and 2020 have hampered juvenile justice reforms due to the court’s shift to virtual hearings, facilities being locked down, and community service agencies unable to provide full offerings due to the potential for virus spread.
A respected criminologist at The University of Miami, Alex Piquero, told The Imprint the rearrest numbers reported by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency represent an important starting point for broadly evaluating the city’s youth justice system.
But he noted, as is true of any empirical study, its shortcomings for evaluating the effect of Raise the Age on public safety, for a number of reasons: Piquero said evaluating the law based on one-year comparisons does not provide robust enough findings. He added that the study lacked controls for specific boroughs or police precincts that could have driven the changes, and didn’t account for whether the 16-year-olds arrested after Raise the Age had more risk-factors for recidivism, such as prior arrests.
Overall crime also started increasing during the year the agency studied, which could mean something other than the Raise the Age law having an impact on the number of teens arrested — including changes in police or prosecutor behavior.
Still, Piquero echoed the Orange County prosecutor, noting that services were a key aspect of the system in need of careful scrutiny.
“If the kids who were released with RTA were supposed to get services but did not — that could be a reason why their rates of recidivism are slightly higher. Providing youth with these services is an important step to try and prevent future offending,” he said in an email.
Raising the age nationwide, what’s known
Eleven states have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 since 2007, and in all, the impact has not been rising crime, said Marcy Mistrett, former director of youth justice at the nonprofit, The Sentencing Project.
She said the benefits are evident for both the public and the youth charged in family courts, where they have a greater possibility of treatment and rehabilitation, rather than harsher adult punishment and prison: “In all 11 states that have raised the age, the outcomes far surpass anything that we expected.”
Referring to public safety concerns of late, Mistrett noted that “we do know that there is an uptick, we saw homicides nationally among children uptick to numbers that we haven’t really seen since the mid 2000s.” But she added that overall, “homicides aren’t related to Raise the Age because those cases always have remained in adult court.”
Impacts of raising the age of criminal prosecution to 18 have been evaluated in Connecticut. That state made the change in 2008, 10 years before New York. In Connecticut, the number of 18- to 21-year-olds who were incarcerated between 2008 and 2010 was reduced by 66%, researchers found, and the arrests of those younger than 18 decreased by 40%.
The 2020 report published by the nonprofit Campaign For Youth Justice heralded the change as beneficial for kids and the public, despite early trepidation about rising crime.
“As one of only three states in the country that still considered all 16 and 17 year olds as adults, no matter how minor the charge, it was a radical notion for the state to make this shift,” the report noted. “Passed in 2007 amid much concern and trepidation about its potential impact on juvenile crime and on the state’s budget, the law turned out to be a resounding success.”
As in New York, crime concerns also led to critiques of juvenile justice reforms in Connecticut. Last year, Republican state lawmakers attributed the state’s rise in car theft in part to passage of that state’s Raise the Age law, and they pushed for stiffer youth penalties as a way to deter those crimes committed by children. This, despite the fact that a 2020 study authored by a University of New Haven criminology professor who found that the state’s Raise the Age law “played a minimal role on the increase in Connecticut auto thefts.”
Along with speculation about an increase in crime, initial fears in Connecticut that costs to taxpayers would skyrocket once more teens in juvenile courts were guaranteed rehabilitative services also did not materialize, advocates found. They reported that the $100 million projected cost of the reform “utterly failed to materialize.”
A year after the law was implemented, the state’s expenditures on juvenile justice were $2 million less than they had been ten years earlier. The state instead reinvested $39 million into community-based alternatives — which advocates reported “are shown to have better outcomes at a fraction of the cost.”
Op-ed writers Carríon and Schiraldi argue New Yorkers deserve the same.
“Simplistic, knee-jerk solutions like prosecuting more 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult court system with the threat of permanent criminal records and lengthy time behind bars are not the answer to the crime problem,” they wrote. “We need to rehabilitate young offenders, not shackle them with adult criminal penalties that will create lifelong barriers to work and school. We’ve seen the carnage that caused and should not revisit it.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.