In recent years, courts have taken concerns about charging juveniles as adults seriously. Science has confirmed that juvenile brains cause adolescents to act more impulsively, and with less regard for consequences and risks.
In 2005, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Roper v Simmons, holding that a juvenile who committed a crime when they were under the age of 18 could not receive a capital sentence. Graham v Florida extended this ruling, preventing states from sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole for a non-homicidal crime. This was broadened in Miller v Alabama, wherein the Court determined that it was unconstitutional to sentence someone who had committed a crime – any crime – under the age of 18 to mandatory life in prison without parole. All of these cases have occurred just in the past 15 years, and the legislature in New York has taken its own proactive steps to ensure juvenile justice is upheld within its borders.
The Raise the Age initiative was signed into law last April. It changes the way the state courts deal with 16- and 17- year old defendants, with most being diverted to Family Court judges who have access to social services and special training in dealing with juveniles. The rule also prohibits the incarceration of offenders under 17 from being held in county jails, like Rikers Island, starting October 1, 2018. Next year, a similar rule will go into effect for 18-year-olds.
Most came out in support of the bill, referencing that New York was one of only two states, along with North Carolina, which viewed defendants over the age of 16 as adults in its criminal courts. District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance wrote to the New York Times, agreeing that the state could “do better than prosecuting and incarcerating 16- and 17-year olds charged with nonviolent crimes on the same terms as adults.”
However, there are critics of the bill who believed it made things too complicated and allowed loopholes in the system. For example, if a juvenile is arrested for a violent felony crime, will not necessarily be allowed to go before a segregated ‘youth part’ of adult court if the victim sustained a serious physical injury, if the accused used a weapon, or if there was criminal sexual conduct involved. They will still face lengthy prison sentences and even lifetime criminal records. A still-standing law also allows 14- and 15-year-olds to be tried as adults if they are charged with one of a dozen crimes, such as murder.
Others complained that the law is too narrow – vehicular crimes and violations will remain in criminal court. There have still been no significant reforms for a speedy trial and bail, meaning these 16- and 17-year olds could easily age out of the system designed to protect them. Many do wish the bill had gone further than it does. There are multiple unknowns about the practicalities of the law, set to go into effect in October 2018, such as where to house the several thousand juveniles currently being held in adult jail. Several lawmakers have since commented that this is merely the first step in adjusting the state criminal justice system for older juveniles in New York.