With the recent signage of the “Raise the Age” legislation, New York no longer automatically processes all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. However, critics say the legislation still needs fine-tuning.

The new legislation directs that all 16- and 17-year-olds be removed from adult county jails and that those who must be incarcerated be held in youth-specific facilities. All misdemeanors will now be heard in Family Court.

Felony charges will begin in a newly established “Youth Part” of the criminal court, presided over by a Family Court judge. Non-violent felony charges will be transferred automatically to Family Court unless the district attorney can demonstrate circumstances that justify retaining the case in the Youth Part of criminal court.

Violent felony charges will be subject to a three-part test to determine whether they are eligible for presumptive removal to Family Court.

Before the passage of “Raise The Age,” youth processed as adults had higher recidivism rates than those processed as juveniles; young people who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested for violent and other crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system. It’s estimated that raising the age of criminal responsibility will prevent between 1,500 and 2,400 crimes every five years.

“By raising the age of criminal responsibility, this legislation will reduce crime, recidivism and costs to the state, and help us deliver on the New York promise to advance social justice and affirm our core progressive values,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Providing young people with age-appropriate facilities and rehabilitation will restore hope and promise and help them turn their lives around to build a better future for themselves, their families and for our great state.”

Even with the law on the books not going into effect until October 2018, there is still some “fine print” according to lawmakers and critics who say some youth can still fall through the cracks, landing them with harsh punishment.

Angelo R. Pinto, senior attorney for the Ending the School House to Jailhouse Track & Justice Project, said cases that remain will apply adult sentencing to those who will be 18 by the time the legislation takes effect.

“Those youth will eventually accompany the 18- and 19-year-olds that New York State is still destroying,” Pinto said. “Without the passage of speedy trial and bail reform we may be celebrating the Rikers victory a bit too early. My hope is also that raising the age will have implications on policing practices throughout the state known to target the youngest who are subject to adult prosecution.”
Reports indicate that accommodations must also be made for the new sector, including the training and hiring of new judges and deciding where to put youth offenders.

State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery said in a statement that loopholes could land many youths in the very place the new legislation aims to keep them out of.

“Children that remain in this new youth part of criminal court are still sentenced as adults; violations are still handled in local criminal court,” she said. “Vehicular crimes and violations remain in criminal court with no chance for removal to family court. The 10-year wait to seal records can halt their progress during the time of their lives when they have the most potential for change.”

The debate about “Raise the Age” also leads back to Rikers Island and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement about plans to close the jail. Many youths remain there even after the legislation’s passage, with no clear timeline to when they will be moved. De Blasio said he plans to close the jail and create smaller jails across the city over the next 10 years.

On Wednesday, members of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference outlined demands for youth to be removed from Rikers Island in a year.

“This year’s passage of Raise the Age comes with an especially important aspect that will ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds are removed from Rikers Island as quickly as possible,” said Sen. Jeff Klein. “Though there have been reforms, there is no question that the best course of action to protect young vulnerable New Yorkers is to keep them off Rikers Island. By moving them into appropriate facilities we can focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.”

Pinto slammed the IDC for arguing for actions from the city that he said they could have helped OK months earlier. He asserted, “The political structure in the state, with the IDC break-away Democrats, a Democrat caucusing with Republicans and many Democrats with diminishing zest, once again caused compromise on the backs on the Black, Brown and poor white children.”

Writing an op-ed in the Amsterdam News this week, Pinto stated, “New York is one of two states in the country that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. The most recent numbers say that approximately 30,000 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults every year…These young folks are automatically housed in adult jails and prisons. In NYC, a 16-year-old could call Rikers Island their home for years, as Kalief Browder did, cycling in and out of solitary confinement, having his mind brutalized and body tortured by the culture of violence amongst staff and those incarcerated. Kalief took what was left of his life after returning to his mother’s home in the Bronx. His mother would soon die after Kalief, many believe literally from a broken heart.”