Action in the Legislature on Raise the Age

The effort to keep nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult court has moved to the state legislature, which is considering two new juvenile justice bills. One, based on a proposal by the state's chief judge, would establish permanent youth courts that prevent those tried for nonviolent offenses from picking up permanent criminal records, but would have little impact for thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds charged each year with violent felonies.

The second would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for all but those accused of the most serious offenses, sending them automatically through the juvenile justice system.

New York and North Carolina are the only two remaining states in the country that automatically send 16- and 17-year-olds to adult Criminal Court, even for such low-level offenses as vandalism and shoplifting.

Legislative observers say the bill that is most likely to move forward is a compromise that reflects the desire of youth advocates, legislators and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to raise the age of adult criminal prosecutions to 18 for nonviolent offenses, but will not overload the Family Court with thousands of new cases. In fact, the new youth courts would be located in and managed by the adult Criminal Court system.

New York has been operating pilot versions of the youth courts since January. Teenagers who are convicted in these special courts are referred to programs that provide services like counseling and job training. Once their cases are closed, their records are sealed, just as they are for juveniles in Family Court.

Proponents of the legislation maintain that sheltering children from the life-long impact of a criminal record is reason enough to make the youth courts permanent. Some youth advocates say the proposal doesn't go far enough, since it would apply only to young people accused of nonviolent crimes. In fact, today, most young people accused of nonviolent crimes are already shielded from criminal records because they end up pleading down to non-criminal offenses or receive Youthful Offender status, which does not carry a record.

"If it doesn't include people accused of violent felonies it may fall short of the intended goals," says Laurie Parise, the director of Youth Represent, which provides legal services to teenaged defendants. Such crimes, which never seal, cause a lifetime of barriers to obtaining the most basic rights such as employment, public housing and higher education, things that are essential for future success."

Last year, more than 37,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested on misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges such as the ones which would make them eligible for the new courts, according to data from the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services. Fewer than 1,300 of these, or about 3 percent, ended up with a misdemeanor or felony conviction on their permanent records.

That same year, 5,800 16- and 17-year olds were charged with violent felonies, and 15 percent ended up with a conviction in adult court and a permanent record.

Glenn Martin, a spokesperson for the Fortune Society, agrees that the effort to keep children out of adult courts should extend to all 16- and 17-year-olds. I think we're at a point in time to do something amazing here,, he says. If you're making a statement about how the human mind works at 16, I don't think you should differentiate between violent and nonviolent offenses.,

David Bookstaver, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, says limiting the proposal to nonviolent charges is a strategic choice. The reality is that we were looking for broad consensus and support as we were drafting this legislation,, he says. The most effective way to garner support is to develop a bill that is likely to succeed. Right now we think the best way to do that is to address the issue of nonviolent offenses.,

The bill's greatest impact will likely be in a provision that keeps teenagers out of court altogether.

The legislation would make nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for a pre-court diversion process, known as adjustment, , that is currently available only to kids in the juvenile justice system. Martin F. Horn, director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, estimates that as many as 40 percent of young people charged with a crime will be diverted before court. He says that probation costs will likely increase as a result, but expects that cost to be offset entirely by the savings from detaining fewer youths.

In cases where it is determined that a young person should be detained while their court cases are pending, they would continue to be held in adult facilities. If convicted, they would be placed in lockups and alternative programs that currently hold and serve juveniles.

Originally, Judge Lippman had proposed to have 16- and 17-year-olds tried in Family Court, but faced opposition over concerns that the Family Court system is already overburdened. The proposed bill sidesteps this problem by designating Criminal Court judges to act like Family Court judges when hearing cases involving accused 16- and 17-year-olds. Lippman still cites the eventual shift of the cases into Family Court as a long-term goal.

Unlike in Family Court, the teenaged defendants will have the protections of due process, sheltering them from the lengthy probing into non-criminal issues, like skipping school or fighting with siblings, that often accompanies the Family Court process.

With just four weeks left in the legislative session, the bill's sponsor, Assemblymember Joseph Lentol (D-Williamsburgh/Greenpoint) says he believes it will advance through the Assembly and may get some movement in the Senate, where it is sponsored by Senator Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie). This will likely set the stage for hearings and further discussion during the off session and into next year," Lentol says.

Lentol also introduced the second, far more sweeping bill this week, which would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for all but those accused of the most serious offenses, sending them directly though Family Court and the juvenile justice system. This second bill represents what I believe is real reform of our criminal justice system in dealing with juvenile offenders,, he says. It doesn't appear that the Senate is willing to go as far as my legislation goes , The Chief Judge's bill attempts to address concerns expressed by opponents [of the raise-the-age bill]."