Council Says Raise the Age...Sort Of

The City Council passed a resolution Tuesday urging the state legislature and Governor Cuomo to send 16- and 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes through the juvenile justice system, rather than automatically prosecuting them as adults. The resolution supports a proposal made in September by New York's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman. Lippman's proposal would re-route adolescents accused of "less serious offenses" through family courts, where they have access to services and programs not available to those tried as adults. The proposal follows a decade-long national trend toward removing adolescents from adult courts, jails and prisons. New York and North Carolina are the only states that still automatically try 16-year-olds as adults. Eleven states set the age of criminal responsibility at 17 while 37 states and the District of Columbia set it at age 18.

Even if New York adopts the changes urged by the City Council, the state's policy would remain among the most stringent in the country. The law would continue to send children to adult courts and prisons if they are charged with violent crimes. Only 23 other states do this, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The majority of states mandate that children first be adjudicated in the juvenile justice system, where judges have the discretion to transfer them to adult court if they believe that circumstances warrant a criminal prosecution.

Last year, more than 42,000 young people aged 16 and 17 were prosecuted as adults in New York State, according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services. Of those, 74 percent (31,764) were charged with misdemeanors; 12 percent (5,341) were charged with nonviolent felonies; and 13 percent (5,727) were charged with violent felonies.

Another 598 children under the age of 16 were tried as adults last year under the state's "juvenile offender" law, which sends children as young as 13 to adult court if they are accused of certain serious felonies. Of those, 77 percent were charged with robbery; 13 percent with assault; three percent with a weapons charge; one percent with homicide. Even if convicted, these juvenile offenders are not incarcerated with adults until they are at least 18 years old.

Judge Lippman has not provided full details on which crimes he wants to see shifted to juvenile courts. "Those juveniles who commit...serious offenses can and should be prosecuted in criminal court," he said in a speech to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City in September.

Others in the court system disagree. "It's the age of the person more than the offense that we should be looking at," says Judge Lee Elkins, who has presided in the Kings County Family Court since 1995. "The whole issue is driven by knowledge about teenagers' development, and the reality that teenage brains are not fully developed in terms of executive function. I don't think that the offense alone should be the determining factor" in deciding where adolescents are tried, he says.

Elkins also maintains that the proposed changes must be considered within the realities of New York's notoriously overburdened Family Court system. "My concern is that we be adequately resourced," he says. "With the budget cuts, everyone is already doing their utmost with less. Please don't impose additional burdens on us without providing additional resources."

Bloomberg administration officials declined to comment on whether they have begun to assess the logistical and financial challenges of expanding the Family Court, juvenile probation and detention systems, but a Department of Probation spokesperson said "This is something we're interested in and we're looking into it."

In September, John Feinblatt, chief policy advisor to the mayor, told The New York Times, "The practical considerations should not shut down the discussion...They should be part of the discussion."

In a City Council hearing earlier this month, several advocates for low-income youth testified that the proposal should include children charged with more serious offenses.

Research on adolescent brain development, for example, which Judge Lippman cited in his September speech and in testimony to the City Council, "does not make a distinction between nonviolent and violent adolescent acts," said Gabrielle Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York, a watchdog group with the authority to inspect and report on state jails and prisons. "We do not...say that some children have demonstrated through their actions an adult-like tendency, and so should be able to serve in the military, vote, or enter into a contract with AT&T."

Both Judge Lippman and the City Council have cited data indicating that adolescents who leave the juvenile justice system are significantly less likely to commit another crime than those who spend time in adult jails and prisons. In 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed six studies that compared recidivism rates between young people who had committed similar offenses but been sentenced through the different systems. Four of the six concluded that processing young people through juvenile systems decreased recidivism by a median of 34 percent.

That data is not limited to nonviolent offenses. In fact, one of the studies in the CDC analysis compared young people charged with comparable, serious crimes in New Jersey, where they were treated as juveniles, and New York, where they were prosecuted as adults. The New York youth were 39 percent more likely to be re-arrested on a violent offense than their juvenile peers across the state line. Councilmember Sara Gonzalez, who chairs the Council's Committee on Juvenile Justice and was the lead sponsor of the resolution declined to comment on the Council's decision to restrict it's resolution to adolescents accused of nonviolent crimes.

In a cost-benefit analysis commissioned by the legislature of North Carolina, which is considering a bill similar to the one proposed by Judge Lippman, The Vera Institute of Justice found that routing 16- and 17-year-olds accused of nonviolent crimes through that state's juvenile justice system would save taxpayers a significant amount of money over the long-term. The policy change was projected to cost the state $49.2 million in additional spending per year. But the authors estimated it would also generate $123.1 million in benefits to young people, victims and taxpayers for every year that young people were routed through the juvenile justice system. Much of that benefit was predicted to come from lower recidivism rates and from freeing young people from the long-term consequences of a criminal record on employment.