Big influx of 17-year-olds Poses next ‘Raise the Age’ test

Eileen Grench | THE CITY

September 23, 2019 – Beginning next week, 17-year-olds will be taken out of the adult criminal justice system — marking the final phase of New York’s historic Raise the Age legislation.

But the law will be put to a critical test: Last year’s removal of 16-year-olds from the system found some courts unprepared for the change — leading youths to be treated like adults or even worse.

Now courts are bracing for at least twice as many 17-year-olds as 16-year-olds to fill State Supreme Courts’ new Youth Part for initial hearings on felony charges as well as Family Court, beginning Oct. 1.

“My fear is that once they double the number of people … we are going to see even longer arrest-to-arraignment times. And that’s a real issue,” said Alice Frontier, head of criminal defense practice for The Bronx Defenders.

Growing pains are rife in some courts, with 16-year-olds “perp-walked” through courthouse doors because no space has been set aside to hold them. Some kids experience long waits between arrests and arraignments, and don’t get an opportunity to speak privately with their lawyers.

“Even when you spend 20 years advocating for something, that doesn’t mean that the agency is equipped to implement it within a year,” said Lucy Lang, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney and now director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“When the legislature makes a decision, all these agencies are going to try to figure out the way operationalize it most effectively,” Lang added. “And a lot of times the legislation isn’t crafted in a way that is consistent with that.”

‘We have to fix this’

In August, THE CITY watched as a skinny, 16-year-old boy sat handcuffed in the hallways of Bronx Supreme Court for two hours. By the time his attorney was told where the youth was and came barreling breathlessly down the marble hallway, court was closed.

The teen would have to wait in a patrol car until night court.

A clerk swung open the heavy wooden door of the court’s Youth Part, exasperated that the lawyer hadn’t been advised when his young client arrived.

“I know stuff’s gonna happen, but we have to fix this before Oct. 1,” the clerk said.

The Legal Aid Society has lauded Raise the Age, saying the law already is making a difference by sending children to age-appropriate courts. Still, the group is girding for the work ahead.

The city’s largest public defender organization said it has shifted resources and trained staff to move seamlessly between criminal and family court.

“We don’t have to put up a big sign and say, we’re hiring,” said Dawne Mitchell, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Juvenile Rights Practice. “It’s more like tightening up and ensuring that we have a clear understanding of the roles we play and are ready to use our expertise for these kids.”

More teens expected

Between January and June, just under 700 16-year-olds were arrested in the city — down from more than 2,200 in the same time period last year, according to New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.

During that same period, arrests of 17-year-olds decreased from 2,538 to 2,205. Still, that means the system, which has already struggled to accommodate the newly added 16-year-olds, should expect a couple of thousand extra cases in the coming months.

A spokesperson for the Queens District Attorney’s Office wrote in an email to THE CITY that officials are hiring paralegals to help deal with what’s expected to be “at least double the number of 17-year-olds compared to 16-year-olds.”
Bronx Family Court is in The Bronx Criminal Court building (left), across the street from The Bronx County Hall of Justice (right). Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Office of Court Administration has offered summer trainings for judges “and have requested additional staffing and judges to back up the criminal court’s Youth Part and Family Courts,” said Lucian Chaflen, an OCA spokesperson.

A representative from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said officials have been convening working groups — often including prosecutors, defense attorneys and city agency representatives — every two to three months since 2017 to plan for Raise the Age-related challenges.

But defense attorneys who’ve attended such meetings told THE CITY that, while in some cases the working groups have been effective, they’ve struggled to find solutions on speedy arraignments.

“In every stakeholder meeting, it’s always a blame game,” Frontier said. “It’s everybody pointing fingers at each other and nobody problem-solving.”

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice told THE CITY in an email that it is still working through arraignment timing lags and other issues.

‘A fun time for juvenile rights’

The state Legislature already has patched some problems that emerged in the initial phase of Raise the Age. On Aug. 30, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation allowing judges at night arraignments to send young people directly to Family Court.

The change is meant to help children and their families avoid unnecessary, repeat court dates when the prosecution and the defense agree the case shouldn’t be kept in adult criminal proceedings.

On Sept. 16, Cuomo signed another measure that allows probation officers to let children avoid further court intervention and instead participate in a diversion program without the explicit consent of a victim, as previously required.

While justice professionals scramble to contend with the addition of 17-year-olds, many are looking forward to new opportunities for more young people to be diverted from the adult justice system. It’s expected, based on the recent numbers, that nearly 60 percent of 17-year-olds arrested will be sent directly to Family Court.

“It’s actually really a fun time for juvenile rights,” said Mitchell of the Legal Aid Society.

Still, Carla Barrett, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, cautioned against “unintended consequences” of the large-scale legislative change.

“There’s still potential for just like, ‘Oh, whoops, we hadn’t thought about that,’ ” said Barrett. “I’m a little apprehensive about how the next couple of years are going to be, but I also think there’s a lot of good people dedicated to trying to make this work.”

This article was originally published in THE CITY.

The Raise the Age NY Coalition includes organizations from across New York, including formerly-incarcerated youth and their families, child advocates, service providers, faith leaders, legal services groups, and unions. Together, we helped pass the Raise the Age law to end the practice of automatically charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Today, we stand with allies from across the state who are moving youth justice forward.