State has incorporated 16- and 17-year-olds into its juvenile justice system over past two years
Just three years ago, nearly 3,000 juveniles served time in adult prison or jails across New York state. In 2020, that number was zero, thanks to the “Raise the Age” juvenile justice reform law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017, after lengthy advocacy and debate in the statehouse.
Despite the dramatic change — a success according to advocates, government officials, and some in law enforcement — a recent report from the Cuomo administration finds the state still faces a deep and persistent racial disparity in its juvenile justice system. Almost all the older teens locked up in the state come from Black and Latino communities.
Youth of color “continue to be disproportionately represented and differentially treated at all points in the system,” according to a review of Raise the Age led by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Children and Family Services. State figures show that 95% of New York City’s 16- and 17-year-olds admitted to the highest security juvenile detention centers — and 84% across the rest of the state — are Black or Latino.
“There is still work to be done to address racial disparities. There is tremendous need in neighborhoods/communities with the most law enforcement attention for meaningful improvements in schools, services, housing, mental health, physical health,” Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project and a member of the governor’s Raise the Age task force, wrote in an email. Ginsburg said policing needs to be improved “to more appropriately address adolescent behaviors” and provide alternative pathways “in lieu of a police response.”
Still, the removal of all juveniles from adult jails and prisons remains a “historic” accomplishment, said Ginsburg and other members of the task force.
The group’s report last month also revealed stark differences in detention practices between New York City and the rest of the state. For example, youth from upstate counties who face delinquency charges — which involve lower-level crimes reviewed by family court judges — are far more likely to be detained than teens in New York City. Eighty-six percent of youth found to be delinquent and placed in secure facilities were non-city residents, as were more than three-quarters of teens placed in pre-trial detention.
One law enforcement official on the governor’s task force described challenges finding detention beds on short notice for juveniles, but agreed the report demonstrated the state’s ability to implement large-scale criminal justice reform.
“On the policy side of it, sheriffs were not thrilled with this change, and did not think it was necessary. There’s been no demonstration it’s better for public safety,” said Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association. “But I think those statistics they produced in the report demonstrated the effectiveness of the change — it certainly was better for the youngsters.”
The Raise the Age task force released its second and final review of the reform law’s implementation late last month, crediting the juvenile justice overhaul for successfully barring anyone under the age of 18 from adult jails or prisons, including the notorious corrections site on New York City’s Rikers Island. The island’s jails became synonymous with abuse after a teen named Kalief Browder’s death by suicide in 2015, which was preceded by a brutal three-year, pretrial stint in the facility — despite never being convicted of anything. Cuomo signed the Raise the Age law with Browder’s brother by his side.
The state is now considering “several strategies to address the persistent disparities” for Black and Latino youth, including investments in community-based alternatives to detention and placement, the task force report noted.
Last week, The Imprint reported that state legislators are also considering pushing for community-based residential programs for youth now locked up in juvenile prisons at annual costs that in some cases have soared to nearly $1 million per youth.
New York was one of the last states to lift its age of adult criminal responsibility to 18. Decades of research finding youth have a greater capacity than adults to grow out of criminal behavior helped fuel a nationwide movement to raise states’ ages of responsibility. Last year, North Carolina became the final state in America to end the automatic prosecution of 16-year-olds as adults. Three other states still consider all 17-year-olds to be adults in the eyes of the law: Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin.
New York’s reform law keeps juveniles out of adult facilities but still allows some high-level violent crimes to be tried in the adult criminal courts. There, teens can face lengthier adult sentences.
But supporters of Raise the Age say they were glad to see in the recent task force review that those cases were limited: Only 220, or 6%, of all youth arraignments were fully processed in the criminal court as opposed to the family courts in the first 18 months of the law’s enactment.
Historical data in the task force report also noted that juvenile arrests and detention have steeply declined the past decade, before and after Raise the Age.