When New York started treating older teens as children and not adults in the eyes of the law, one public defender was relieved she no longer had to tell parents their children were headed to Rikers Island. But an upstate district attorney insists the 2017 “Raise the Age” law needs changing, and that failing to do so is “a disservice to people who are actually in the business of keeping communities safe.”
On Thursday, New York’s top juvenile justice officials, judges, social workers, prosecutors and child advocates gathered at Syracuse University to discuss the statewide justice reform that funnels most 16- and 17-year-olds who commit crimes into Family Court and age-appropriate detention facilities. The series of daylong panels was convened by a commission focused on promoting racial and ethnic fairness in the state court system, and the university’s law school.
“The fact that I don’t have to tell a child he’s going to Rikers Island for committing a minor offense, that takes away a huge burden,” said participant Deborah Rush, the public defender from the Bronx. “The fear I used to see in parents’ faces, telling them their kid’s going to Rikers Island as a young child, you never want to be in that position.”
Throughout the day, it became clear that even those who had been among the most vocal critics of the juvenile justice reform supported the law’s fundamental goals. They also shared broad agreement that the state had fallen short in funding the landmark initiative, which was premised on more supportive human services and less punitive jail time.
“Something we should keep in mind and never forget, is that we removed 459 youth from adult jails,” said Robert Maccarone, a deputy commissioner with the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services who oversees probation. After a four-decade career leading corrections and justice policy statewide, he asked: “Would you want your 17-year-old daughter or son in adult jail? The answer is emphatically, ‘no.’”
Still, in a climate of increased violence nationwide, and heated statewide political campaigns where violence has been a prominent theme, influential prosecutors voiced sharp disagreements with Maccarone and others on whether the 2017 law had contributed to rising youth gun crime.
“It is a disservice to people who are actually in the business of keeping communities safe, to reject outright this idea that this law is not contributing to violence and what we’re seeing happen on the streets,” said Albany District Attorney David Soares, urging reforms to the law with regard to gun possession.
State figures show that youth arrests for all crimes outside of New York City declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2021, falling by 12.5%. Youth arrests also remained a small share of overall arrests, at roughly 4%.
But data presented at the daylong event hosted by the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission also revealed that youth arrests for gun crime have surged 229% statewide since 2019.
The Raise the Age reform diverted the vast majority of non-violent cases involving 16- and 17-year olds from adult criminal court to Family Court. It also barred minors from incarceration in adult facilities, a move that followed years of abuses documented in news media reports and federal investigations.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark spoke of the need to stop the pipeline, by providing more and better prevention services to teens through the Family Courts. She described one current case where an 11-year-old was shot, the alleged shooter was 15, the alleged shooter’s accomplice was 18, and the intended target was just 13 years old.
“In the Bronx, I’m losing a whole generation of kids,” she said.
Youth with experience in the justice system did not speak on panels Thursday, which several participants described as unfortunate.
But court officials, scholars and youth advocates sharply disputed prosecutors’ arguments that Raise the Age was to blame for the increase in gun violence, noting such crimes had increased even in states that did not pass juvenile justice reforms.
“It is not factual that the rise in crime is attributed to Raise the Age legislation. It’s not facts,” said Kercena Dozier, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter.
Attorney Rush, who oversees youth legal defense in Bronx criminal court for the Legal Aid Society, suggested pandemic-era school closures have played a role.
“The biggest problem for us were the kids not going to school,” she said. But now, she added, they’re back in school and social service providers can enter their homes, allowing them to do community-based prevention programs.
The Thursday event was the most in-depth public consideration of Raise the Age since the spring, when New York lawmakers considered — and then mostly rejected — rolling back portions of the law involving youth charged with simple gun possession. Following public debate involving Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Senate and Assembly leaders and prosecutors, lawmakers ultimately declined to make any major changes to the law this year.
But pushback on the reform continues. The same day as the Syracuse event, Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, held a press conference where he vowed, if elected, to promptly suspend the Raise the Age and other justice reform laws, sparking critical response from Democratic lawmakers.
State lawmakers ‘walked away’
Numerous speakers at Thursday’s convening argued that not nearly enough state funding has materialized to support programs and juvenile detention beds needed to handle the influx of older teens into the juvenile system. A February report in The Albany Times-Union found that just $270 million out of $800 million allocated for Raise the Age reforms since 2017 had been spent by the beginning of the year.
A spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) — which oversees juvenile corrections and has implemented Raise the Age in collaboration with the Criminal Justice Services agency — told The Imprint that changes had been made to move money more quickly since the February article was published.
The state has now spent $325 million on Raise the Age reforms, despite the fact that the pandemic and a workforce shortage has inhibited its rollout plans.
“OCFS has streamlined the plan submission and approval process and continues to provide technical assistance to any county seeking reimbursement for services and programs under the Raise the Age allocation,” said Jeannine Smith. She added that her agency remained “fully committed” to reimbursing counties fully for their implementation costs, as required by law.
But those inside the justice system remain frustrated.
“The state Legislature passed a law and then walked away from this issue, did not give the resources to our Family Court judges, to our prosecutors, to probation, to defense attorneys, to have the programs in place that would have a more meaningful outcome,” said Michael McMahon, district attorney for New York City’s Staten Island.
McMahon’s co-panelists — which included prosecutors Soares and Clark — echoed that position, and several youth advocates agreed.
“We’re giving them ankle monitors, and they’ve said: ‘Hey, good luck,’” said Soares, who has made repeated calls to roll back Raise the Age for youth arrested for gun possession.
Judges on a separate panel noted the racial disproportionality of those they see every day in the Family Court and the “Youth Part” of the adult criminal courts. They raised concerns about their education and how far they seem to be falling behind.
“Too many of those young, Black males are not in school,” said Onondaga County Judge Vanessa Bogan.
Judges also noted that counties outside Albany and Buffalo were struggling due to a lack of detention space, requiring youth to be sent to facilities hours away.
“We’re trying to detain, and we don’t have a bed,” said Albany County Family Court Judge Richard Rivera, describing one teenager who was sent hours away from his home in the Albany area to a detention facility near Rochester.
The Division of Criminal Justice Services’ Maccarone pushed back on speakers who took issue with a lack of funding for Raise the Age reforms. He highlighted a battery of new programs — including evening centers, juvenile accountability boards, mentoring, mediation and therapies.
“We recognized the essential themes that change is possible — and in fact, it’s likely,” Maccarone said. “Accountability, yes, but accountability does not change thinking, and it does not change behavior. Understanding, cognitive behavioral interventions, that’s what changes behavior.”