By Chris Zoukis
Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds charged with crimes in New York courts will continue to be tried as adults, as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature ended the 2015 lawmaking session without a law to “Raise the Age” for adult prosecutions, as many justice activists had hoped. New York remains one of two states, along with North Carolina, that maintains the dubious distinction of requiring that all such children are tried in adult courts regardless of the offense.
Under public pressure from The Raise the Age NY Campaign, a coalition of justice groups including the NAACP, many had hoped that New York would rectify the state’s policy on 16 and 17 year olds, which a growing body of research indicates is harmful to such children and the community at large. According to research cited by Raise the Age proponents, some 50,000 children are prosecuted in adult courts each year, despite that 75 percent face only misdemeanor offenses. These minor prisoners are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile one, advocates claim, and are great risk for sexual assault and staff abuse. Such children have approximately 34 percent more re-arrests for felony crimes than those charged in juvenile proceedings. Around 80 percent of those released from adult prisons reoffend, often for more serious crimes.
Cuomo had stated that raising the age would be a priority for the 2015 budget session. During a tour of the Coxsackie Correctional Facility in May, Cuomo told reporters, “In my opinion, it is too early to condemn a 16 year old to a life without redemption.” However, at the end of the legislative session, New York had failed to change its policy on the matter. The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus had joined Cuomo in making a bill to change the law a priority, noting that Black and Hispanic youth were charged in 77 percent of such prosecutions, despite making up only 33 percent of all 16 and 17 year old children in the state. One member of the caucus, who spoke anonymously, expressed his dismay. “This wasn’t controversial. We could have had a deal, but apparently it wasn’t worth the effort from the second floor.”
Instead, Cuomo issued a statement promising “executive action” that will remove 16 and 17 year olds from adult prisons and detain them instead in alternative detention centers. What this action will entail was not made clear; Cuomo did not issue any executive orders. “We really don’t know much in the way of details,” said Paige Pierce of the Families Together New York, a group that helped push Raise the Age. She said that other advocates and legislators have not been given a timeline for any changes, how the new facilities will be identified or operated, or what impact the move will have on future Raise the Age efforts. Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a leading voice in the Democrats’ criminal justice efforts, told the Gotham Gazette, “I thank the governor for his executive action. It is a good start and the right thing to do but I think it is appalling in the current climate that we can’t get anything major on criminal justice reform done.”
Critics of Cuomo’s half-measure pointed out that simply removing children from adult prisons won’t protect them from the lifelong stigma of a criminal record and the collateral consequences it brings. Sen. Rivera said, “We are very disappointed. But I know we are seriously going to turn up the heat.” Until then, New York will remain one of the few places in America where 16 and 17 year olds will be booked in adult court for any offense.
This article recently appeared in Prison Legal News in November.