New York State is on the cusp of an historic change. Currently, we are the only state other than North Carolina that automatically tries all 16-year olds as adults, which increases the likelihood that youth will re-offend. If New York State passes the proposals outlined by Governor Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice which are in the proposed Executive Budget, we will quickly become a leader in confronting juvenile crime. These proposals represent the consensus of a diverse group of law enforcement experts and advocates who were tasked with suggesting ways to change our juvenile justice system in order to reduce crime.
Most importantly, the changes allow our criminal justice system to have the flexibility necessary to confront the limited cases of violent crime by young people, taking into account neuroscientific evidence that the teenage brain is still developing, which means that youth can turn their lives around. The neuroscience is why numerous studies have shown that treating youth in an age-appropriate manner and incarcerating them with other youth reduces the likelihood that they will re-offend when they get out.
Alexandra Cox's piece "How Not to Raise the Age" raises important questions about some of the challenges that the commission confronted—among them, how the legal system should respond to the relatively small number of young people who commit serious violent crimes.
From a national perspective, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws which either allow or require young people charged with certain crimes to be tried as adults. In some states these provisions have few limits, allowing nearly any offense to be handled in adult court. In New York, the standard for youth under the age of juvenile jurisdiction who are tried as adults focuses solely on serious felony offenses. And even for those cases, New York’s proposal provides nuance.
A set of serious felony offenses will begin in adult court as they do now, but the proposals maintain the ability of the adult criminal court to send, or remove, cases to Family Court, and for some crimes presume their removal. For example, the Commission recommended changes to a type of felony charge whereby young people who are part of a group in which one member threatens someone else can be thrown into adult prison, even if they played no primary role themselves. Although those cases will continue to originate in adult court, the proposal creates a new presumption that the case should be handled as a juvenile case.
The proposals also create a new opportunity for young people who do end up with adult records to request to have one conviction sealed after a period of years, something New York has never before allowed, to ensure that one mistake doesn’t mean that a youth will lose their housing or a chance to go to college or get a job and become a productive member of society.
The set of proposals put forth by the commission and contained in the Governor's bill represent the work of a diverse set of commission members who worked to balance the goals of youth needs and public safety. The proposals will affect thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds who are currently all tried as adults, the majority of whom are young people of color, and add new options for second chances for young people charged with and convicted of crimes in adult court.
Krista Larson directs the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice, which staffed Governor Cuomo’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice