Six months after Raise the Age legislation went into effect for 16-year-olds, Westchester County is adjusting to a new set of practices for dealing with adolescents charged with misdemeanors and felonies. A panel of attorneys, judges and law enforcement officials discussed the challenges and rewards of implementing the new policy to an audience of more than 100 at the White Plains Public Library Wednesday.
Raise the Age raises the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 in New York State and creates a new set of policies for dealing with 16- and 17-year-olds. The policy went into effect for 16-year-olds on Oct. 1, 2018 and will extend to 17-year-olds on Oct. 1, 2019.
Under the new policy, 16-year-olds who are charged with misdemeanors are referred to family court. The newly created Youth Part of Criminal Court, which is designed to consider offenders’ young age, presides over violent felonies that involve significant physical injury, display of a weapon or sex offenses.
In some cases, the District Attorney can exercise discretion over which court to try 16-year-olds. For non-violent felonies, or violent felonies not involving significant physical injury, display of a weapon or sex offenses, the DA may file a motion within 30 days to retain the case in the Youth Part of Criminal Court. Otherwise, the case is deferred to Family Court.
The policy also changes the way that police officers are allowed to interact with 16-year-olds. Sgt. William Lugo, Commanding Officer of the Special Victims Unit for the Greenburgh Police Department, said that police officers can no longer question them the same way or house them in the same cell as adults. In addition, a parent must be notified when a 16-year-old is taken into custody.
New York and North Carolina were the last two states that prosecuted 16-year-olds as adults.
Allison Lake, Executive Director of the Westchester Children’s Association, said that 70% of crimes that 16- and 17-year-olds commit are misdemeanors, and that the opportunity for a young person to avoid a criminal record is instrumental in his or her success in life.
“Why we wanted to raise the age to 18 is to give young people that second chance, that opportunity to get resources and supports — certainly hold them accountable to whatever crime they may have committed, but in an age-appropriate manner,” she said.
Speakers stressed that adolescents should be treated differently than adults because their brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s. While adolescents are more likely to take risks, they are also likely to outgrow criminal behavior, according to Julia Davis, Esq., the Director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York.
“Treating young people in the adult criminal justice system is bad for them and it’s bad for us,” Davis said. “It does not result in a community of safety. It does not improve public safety, and rather reduces positive outcomes for our children.”
The change in legislation is already impacting youths’ lives, Davis said.
“I hear every day stories about kids who were charged with misdemeanors that would have gone to criminal court and would have had a criminal conviction on their record, but now are going to family court or having their cases adjusted,” Davis said. “Absolutely we know that the law is making a difference for kids already.”
One of the biggest challenges the community still has to deal with, according to the panel, is that youths’ involvement in the justice system often cuts into their time at school.
“A child should be in school six or seven hours a day,” said Wayne Humphries, Esq., Deputy County Attorney for the Westchester County Department of Law. “Coming to this library for two hours a day to receive tutoring services is not sufficient.”
Kathie Davidson, Administrative Judge of the Ninth Judicial District, added that students who are involved in the justice system often want to return to school, but are embarrassed of the time they may have missed.
“We must advocate for educational opportunities for children,” she said.
The legal system will face additional challenges when the Raise the Age policy goes into effect for 17-year-olds next year. Panelists stressed that there tend to be more 17-year-olds charged with crimes than 16-year-olds, and that youth judges and detention services will have to accommodate additional people.
Regardless of the challenges, the panelists were optimistic that Raise the Age would have a positive effect on the community.
“Once they’re in the system, the collateral damage is horrible. They really are ruined for life. They can’t get housing, they can’t get student loans, they can’t get into college — things that just affect their life,” said Paul Noto, Esq., First Deputy District Attorney of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. “The hope here — and I think it will be successful — is that we’ll have a safer county and more productive young people.”