Syracuse forum reviews New York’s youth justice law

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Adilia Watson and Michael Fitzgerald

This article is co-published with The footprint, a national non-profit media outlet covering child protection and youth justice. Visit imprintnews.org to see more of his coverage.

When New York City began treating older teens like children and not adults in the eyes of the law, a public defender was relieved to no longer have to tell parents their kids were going to Rikers Island. But an upstate district attorney insists the 2017 ‘Raise the Age’ law needs to be changed, and that failure to do so is ‘a disservice to the people who actually deal with security communities”.

On Thursday, New York’s top juvenile justice officials, judges, social workers, prosecutors and children’s advocates gathered at Syracuse University to discuss justice reform nationwide. the state funneling most 16 and 17 year olds who commit crimes into family court and age-appropriate. detention centers. The day-long series of panels was convened by a commission focused on promoting racial and ethnic equity in the state justice system and the university’s law school.

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“The fact that I don’t have to tell a kid they’re going to Rikers Island for committing a minor offense, it takes a huge burden off it,” said attendee Deborah Rush, the Bronx public defender. “The fear I saw on the parents’ faces, telling them their child was going to Rikers Island as a young child, you never want to be in that position.”

Throughout the day, it became clear that even those who had been among the most vocal critics of juvenile justice reform supported the law’s fundamental goals. They also shared broad agreement that the state had failed to fund the landmark initiative, which relied on more supportive social services and less punitive prison sentences.

“What we have to remember and never forget is that we have removed 459 young people from adult prisons,” said Robert Maccarone, deputy commissioner of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. who oversees probation. After a four-decade career leading statewide corrections and justice policy, he asked, “Would you like your 17-year-old daughter or son in adult prison? The answer is emphatically “no”.

Yet in a climate of heightened nationwide violence and impassioned statewide political campaigns where violence has been a prominent theme, influential prosecutors have expressed strong disagreements with Maccarone and others on whether the 2017 law had contributed to the increase in gun crime among young people.

“It’s doing a disservice to the people who actually care about community safety, to categorically reject this idea that this law doesn’t contribute to the violence and what we’re seeing happening on the streets,” he said. Albany District Attorney David Soares calling for law reforms regarding gun ownership.

State figures show youth arrests for all crimes outside of New York declined for the ninth straight year in 2021, dropping 12.5%. Youth arrests also remained a small share of total arrests, at around 4%.

But data presented at the one-day event hosted by the Franklin H. Williams Judiciary Commission also found youth arrests for gun crimes are up 229% statewide since 2019. .

The Raise the Age reform shifted the vast majority of non-violent cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds away from adult criminal court to family court. He also barred minors from being incarcerated in adult facilities, a move that followed years of abuse documented in the media and federal investigations.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark spoke about the need to stop the pipeline, providing more and better preventive services to teens through family courts. She described a current case where an 11-year-old child was shot, the alleged shooter was 15, the alleged shooter’s accomplice was 18, and the intended target was just 13.

“In the Bronx, I’m losing a whole generation of kids,” she said.

Young people with experience in the justice system did not speak at the panels on Thursday, which several participants called unfortunate.

But court officials, academics and youth advocates have hotly disputed prosecutors’ arguments that Raise the Age was to blame for the increase in gun violence, noting that such crimes have increased even in states that don’t. had not adopted juvenile justice reforms.

“It is not factual that the increase in crime is attributed to the Raise the Age legislation. These are not facts,” said Kercena Dozier, executive director of the New York chapter of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Attorney Rush, who oversees youth legal defense in Bronx Criminal Court for the Legal Aid Society, suggested pandemic-era school closures played a role.

“The biggest problem for us was that the children weren’t going to school,” she said. But now, she added, they are back in school and social service providers can come into their homes, enabling them to attend community-based prevention programs.

Thursday’s event was the most thorough public scrutiny of Raise the Age since the spring, when New York lawmakers considered — and then mostly rejected — rolling back parts of the law involving young people. charged with simple possession of firearms. Following a public debate involving Governor Kathy Hochul, leaders and prosecutors from the Senate and State Assembly, lawmakers ultimately declined to make major changes to the law this year.

But the decline in reform continues. On the same day as the Syracuse event, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin held a press conference where he pledged, if elected, to quickly halt the age increase and other justice reform legislation, prompting a critical response from Democratic lawmakers.

State lawmakers have ‘walked away’

Many speakers at Thursday’s meeting argued that state funding was nowhere near enough to support the programs and juvenile detention beds needed to handle the influx of older teens into the system. for minors. A February report in The Albany Times-Union found that only $270 million of the $800 million allocated to Raise the Age reforms since 2017 had been spent at the start of the year.

A spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) – which oversees juvenile corrections and has implemented Raise the Age in conjunction with the agency Criminal Justice Services – told The Imprint that changes had been made to move money faster since the February article. has been published.

The state has now spent $325 million on Raise the Age reforms, despite the pandemic and a labor shortage hampering its rollout plans.

“OCFS has streamlined the plan submission and approval process and continues to provide technical assistance to any county seeking reimbursement for services and programs under the Raise the Age allocation,” said Jeannine Smith. She added that her agency remains “fully committed” to reimbursing the counties. full implementation costs, as required by law.

But those inside the justice system remain frustrated.

“The State Legislature passed a law and then walked away from this issue, didn’t give the resources to our family court judges, our prosecutors, probation, defense attorneys , to put in place the programs that would have a more meaningful outcome,” said Michael McMahon, Staten Island District Attorney in New York.

McMahon’s co-panelists — which included prosecutors Soares and Clark — echoed that stance, and several youth advocates agreed.






Albany County Family Court Judge Richard Rivera speaks at Thursday’s event.


Caitlin Eddolls


“We give them ankle monitors, and they’re like, ‘Hey, good luck,'” said Soares, who has made repeated calls to roll back Raise the Age for young people arrested for gun possession.

Judges on a separate panel noted the racial disproportionality of those they see every day in family court and in the “youth section” of adult criminal courts. They expressed concerns about their upbringing and how they seem to be falling behind.

“Too many of these young black men aren’t in school,” Onondaga County Judge Vanessa Bogan said.

The judges also noted that counties outside of Albany and Buffalo were struggling due to a lack of detention space, forcing youths to be sent to facilities hours away.

‘We’re trying to detain, and we don’t have a bed,’ Albany County Family Court Judge Richard Rivera said, describing a teenager who was sent hours from his home in the area. from Albany to a detention center near Rochester.


New York counties, including Cayuga, struggle with lack of detention beds for teenagers

Construction delays due to the pandemic, staffing shortages and long pretrial stays for teenage offenders have slowed the ability to create more bed space, according to a New York official.

Maccarone of the Criminal Justice Services Division pushed back on speakers who took issue with the lack of funding for Raise the Age reforms. He highlighted a battery of new programs – including evening centres, youth responsibility counselling, mentoring, mediation and therapy.

“We have recognized the core themes where change is possible – and in fact, it is likely,” Maccarone said. “Responsibility, yes, but responsibility doesn’t change thinking, and it doesn’t change behavior. Understanding, cognitive behavioral interventions, is what changes behavior.

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