"Our juvenile justice laws are outdated. Under New York State law, 16-and 17-year-olds can be tried and charged as adults...It's not right; it's not fair. We must raise the age."
Governor Cuomo, State of the State Address, Jan. 8, 2014
In April 2014, Gov. Cuomo established the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and Justice to develop a plan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction. The question was never "if" New York would raise the age, but "how". It was clear New York did not want to be the last state that automatically prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds in the adult system.
Finally, last Monday, on MLK Day, Governor Cuomo and the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice released their recommendations on how to accomplish this feat. The Commission agreed that this was the right time to "raise the age" for several reasons including extensive research on adolescent brain development and the significant impact on adolescents when incarcerated in jails and prisons. Additionally, data showing higher suicide rates and higher recidivism, and the disproportionality of young men of color charged as adults strongly influenced the Commission to make the following recommendations:
1. Raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18: Juvenile jurisdiction should be expanded to include 16-year-olds in 2017 and 17-year-olds in 2018. This phase approach will allow for an initial infusion of the smaller population of 16-year-olds followed by full implementation. Youth charged with violent felonies will still originate in the criminal court.
2. Keeping youth out of adult jails and prisons: Prohibit confinement of any minor in an adult jail or prison and allow youth to remain in youth settings until age 21.
3. Diverting more cases before they reach the courts: Mandate diversion attempts for low-risk (per risk assessment) misdemeanor cases.
4. Establish family engagement specialists to facilitate diversion options: Support for family engagement specialists would strengthen capacity to engage youth and their families in targeted services and maximize the benefits.
5. Develop a continuum of effective community-based services at the local level to be used by probation: Community-based supervision provided to 16- and 17-year-olds should use evidence-based interventions individually tailored to reduce the risks and address the needs presented by the youth.
6. Create the capacity to seal one conviction from crimes committed under age 21: Allow for sealing after two years without a conviction for a misdemeanor conviction and five years for a felony conviction (excluding violent felonies, Class A felonies, homicides, and sex offenses).
In total, the Commission recommended 38 improvements to how youth are treated by New York's criminal justice system. The full report can be found here. These thoughtful recommendations should be uplifted, celebrated, and passed by the New York Assembly, quickly, and without debate. As the Commission and Governor have stated, the time is now, New York.