ALBANY - A years-long campaign to remove most 16- and 17-year-olds from New York's criminal courts was crafted by just three words: Raise the Age.
It took more than 25,000 words to make it reality.
A 43-page, 28,869-word measure tucked in New York's newly approved budget will raise the age of criminal responsibility, reshaping the way the state's criminal-justice system treats adolescents and putting it in line with 48 other states.
Supporters, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and most Democratic lawmakers, say the new law is an historic measure that will give teenagers a second chance rather than a lifelong criminal record.
But the law continues to have its critics, including some prosecutors and law-and-order advocates who fear it could put dangerous criminals back on the streets.
At a bill-signing event Monday, Cuomo said it's "insanity" to treat teenagers as adults in the courts and prison system.
"This says a 16- or a 17-year-old who makes a mistake should be treated as a 16- or 17-year old who makes a mistake," Cuomo said. "They should get help, they should get counseling, they should get a punishment, but not a criminal record that destroys the rest of their lives."
How it works
The new law will work like this: 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a misdemeanor will have their case sent to Family Court, a low-level court that specializes in child and family cases and provides a broad array of connections to counseling and support services.
Non-violent felonies will begin in the "youth part" of criminal court, where judges will have specific training in family and children issues. But those cases will be transferred to Family Court unless the local district attorney can prove there are "extraordinary circumstances."
Violent felonies -- like murder, rape and arson -- will remain in criminal court, though a judge can transfer certain non-sexual offenses to Family Court if there are no injuries, there was no weapon used or a defendant played a minor role in a group crime.
The affected teens, meanwhile, will be removed from adult jails.
All the changes will require a significant shift of resources in the state's court system, and the state will have to develop facilities to house adolescent offenders that offer a "home-like setting."
But the law gives time for adjustment: The changes will take effect for 16-year-olds on Oct. 1, 2018, and 17-year-olds a year later.
Ultimately, family courts will need end up with an influx of new cases.
Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, who oversees the state's court system's $2.5 billion budget, said the courts are fully supportive of the changes.The changes, however, will take time to implement, and a task force will soon be created to come up with a plan, he said.
"It's a good problem for us to have, let me put it that way," Marks said.'"We're looking forward to successfully implementing the new law, and to the extent that we have to shift resources and move some people around, we'll be able to do that to make this work."
Drop in crime
The law has the potential to affect tens of thousands of cases each year, though the number has consistently dropped over the years.
Last year, 24,625 people age 16 or 17 were arrested on criminal charges in New York, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Of those, 3,445 -- about 13 percent -- were charged with a violent felony.
Compare that to 2012, when 38,493 16- and 17-year-olds were criminally charged, with 4,712 charged with a violent felony.
About 60 percent of the cases originate in New York City.
The vast majority of the statewide cases, however, do not result in a public criminal conviction, even under the current system. And less than 3 percent ended up with prison or jail sentences, state records showed.
Of the 24,572 cases that wrapped up last year, 1,012 -- or about 4 percent -- involving 16- and 17-year-olds ended with a misdemeanor or felony conviction that remained public.
Another 3,708 -- about 15 percent -- ended with a felony or misdemeanor conviction, but the teen was granted youthful-offender status, which meant the records were sealed and unavailable to the general public.
The reforms were the product of contentious negotiations that helped push the budget nine days past its March 31 due date before it was passed.
Democrats in the Legislature sought a system that allowed nearly all cases to begin in Family Court, arguing it was the most appropriate setting for young offenders.
Republicans, particularly those in the GOP-led Senate, wanted the piece that allows district attorneys to keep serious cases in criminal court, if the circumstances allow.
Prosecutors appear wary of the changes, arguing they could allow dangerous criminals to slip through the cracks.
Broome County District Attorney Steve Cornwell, a Republican, said he believes there needs to be an "overhaul" of the juvenile-justice system. But the new law "does more harm than good," he said. "Sadly, Raise the Age will re-victimize victims by taking them out of the process and allowing defendants to go unpunished," he said."And, it will lead to the exploitation of children, who drug dealers will prey upon, to sell poisonous drugs, without the threat of criminal prosecution.”
Uphold the law
Supporters of the plan disagree, pointing to the provisions that will keep the most serious crimes in criminal court.
Claire Gutekunst, president of the state Bar Association, said a "guiding hand" can make help make a teen a "responsible adult rather than a repeat offender."
"The measure recognizes what researchers have documented--and many parents have observed--that 16- and 17-year-olds often lack the maturity and judgment to understand the legal consequences of their impulsive behaviors," she said.
Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, a Democrat who is president of the state District Attorneys Association, said prosecutors will uphold the law whether they agree with it or not.
He acknowledged prosecutors had "many concerns" with the original raise the age proposals.
"Some of these issues were heeded, while others were not," he said in a statement. "While we remain concerned with some aspects of the legislation, we, as district attorneys are sworn to administer the law faithfully."
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