Sixteen- and 17-year-olds aren’t old enough to vote. They’re not old enough to buy tobacco or alcohol. They’re not even old enough to join the military.
But are they old enough to face an adult criminal justice system?
A statewide coalition of youth advocacy groups and some law enforcement officials argue they are not, and they’re pushing for legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state.
In New York, the age of criminal responsibility is 16, meaning teens of 16, 17 or 18 charged with a misdemeanor or a felony are automatically charged as an adult, and their cases are heard in adult court. Only one other state, North Carolina, automatically treats all teens age 16 and older as adults in the criminal justice system.
That means anything from a misdemeanor petty theft up to the most serious cases of murder are all sent to adult court. How they’re treated in adult court, however, does vary by the level of offense.
The Raise the Age coalition argues that in too many cases treating young offenders as adults isn’t appropriate and hinders the chance that young offenders get services that could set them back on the right path.
Treating older teen offenders more like younger teens, who are dealt with in family court, would offer them better access to counseling and other programs that the advocates argue they don’t have now.
Others say the existing system already provides discretion: Judges in adult court may — and do — order records sealed by granting what is called youthful offender status. Once granted, the status wipes the conviction from the youth’s record at the time of sentencing, allowing the teens to face their punishment, but also move on with their lives without a criminal record.
Raise the Age includes child advocacy groups, including the Children’s Defense Fund-New York. The group also counts support from Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, president of the statewide District Attorney’s Association, and former New York City criminal court judge Michael Corriero, now executive director of the New York Center for Juvenile Justice.
Members of the group base their arguments partly on research from the MacArthur Research Network, which indicates adolescent brains continue developing up to age 25. The MacArthur report found that teens often lack impulse control and engage in riskier behavior. The study also found that these teens often “respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior.”
Diverting more teens to programs to change behavior can benefit both the offender and society, according to Melanie Hartzog of the Children’s Defense Fund-New York. Hartzog emphasized brain development research, which she said shows young offenders can be changed.
“That clearly shows room for rehabilitation, more so than adults,” Hartzog said. “They’re more likely to be receptive and responsive to rehabilitation.”
The group also is worried about the impact that housing 16- and 17-year-olds in adult facilities has on them mentally and physically.
In the Schenectady County Jail, those ages 16 to 18 are kept separate from the general population, a state requirement. On Friday, that population stood at 16 males and 2 females at the jail, according to Undersheriff Gordon Pollard.
In state prison, inmates younger than 21 are generally grouped together to take advantage of educational programs. But they are not required to be kept separate from the adult population and do have some contact with older inmates, state officials said.
Just last week in Schenectady, a 16-year-old was charged with felony contempt, accused of hitting his mother in violation of an order of protection. A 17-year-old was charged with felony third-degree burglary and misdemeanor petty larceny, accused of breaking into a building and taking video games. Another 17-year-old was charged with felony stolen property possession, accused of possessing credit cards taken minutes previously, during a car break-in.
All three are being prosecuted in adult court.
According to state Department of Criminal Justice Services statistics, statewide in 2010, there were slightly more than 46,100 arrests involving those ages 16 or 17 at the time of the crime. Of those, more than 34,700 were for misdemeanors, 11,400 for felonies.
That same year, 6,945 offenders were convicted and sentenced. More that 58 percent of those offenders — 4,066 teens — were granted youthful offender status and had their records wiped clean.
Another 13 percent, or 895 teens, have felonies on their records. A total of 427, or about 6.1 percent, have misdemeanors. Some 1,597 were left with non-criminal offenses, after having started at the felony level.
In Schenectady County in 2010, there were 60 convictions of 16- or 17-year-olds. Of those, 11 received a full felony conviction on their records, one a misdemeanor; 40 received youthful offender status, eliminating the conviction (of those, 15 were felony and 25 misdemeanor convictions).
Schenectady County Conflict Defender Steve Signore said he sees too many teenage defendants facing the possibility of lengthy sentences for doing “stupid things.”
“That’s not to minimize what they’re doing, but I hate to see young kids be polluted at such an early age, when they should know better but don’t know better,” Signore said.
He said he’d like to see a system where judges can refer cases back to family court, if the case warrants it.
Local defense attorney Brian Mercy, who is also a town court judge in Glenville, noted that certain cases, namely violent felonies, aren’t appropriate for a family court setting. With nonviolent crimes such as theft and drug offenses, he said, family court could offer more services.
Some services appropriate for teens are offered in adult court, with its drug court and mental health courts. With those courts, youthful offender status is also possible.
“A lot of young people truly make a mistake and a lot of the time being able to earn a youthful offender adjudication is a powerful motivation,” Mercy said.
Whatever is done to change how such young offenders are treated, it must take into account what the teen is accused of, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said. Carney said it makes some sense to deal with minor offenses committed by 16- and 17-year-olds in a way that has more emphasis on rehabilitative services.
When a teen commits a more serious crime, especially a violent crime, he said, public safety takes precedence.
“At some point, rehabilitation has to take a back seat to community protection and incapacitation,” Carney said.
Local courts have had their share of violent crimes involving older teens, including gang assaults and murder. Those convicted of murder or an armed felony are not eligible for youthful offender status.
The ongoing case of a group of youths accused of attacking a movie-goer at the Bow Tie Cinema in downtown Schenectady has a range of ages. Four teens, ages 16 to 18, were charged as adults. About four others — the exact number has not been released — were 15 or younger. Those cases were automatically sent to family court, their names not revealed.
In the Bow Tie case, each of the four charged as adults face sentences of as much as 25 years in prison, if convicted of the first-degree assault and first-degree gang assault counts against them.
But those cases are the exception. Most cases against teens involve misdemeanors or lower-level felonies. According to the Raise the Age campaign, almost 90 percent of those ages 16 and 17 arrested in the Capital Region in 2010 were arrested for nonviolent offenses.
There are two proposals calling for reform before state lawmakers.
One of the proposals, sponsored by two Brooklyn senators, would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, while keeping a mechanism for youths to be tried in adult court if circumstances warrant.
The other, sponsored by a senator from western New York and one from Brooklyn, focuses on nonviolent offenses, sending 16- and 17-year-olds charged with the nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors into substance abuse, medical and educational services through a new judicial forum called the Youth Division.
No Capital Region senators or assemblymen have signed on to co-sponsor either bill. One local state legislator, though, said he doesn’t expect any changes. State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said the current system works well.
“District attorneys already have discretion,” Farley said. “They’re closer to the scene. ... To take that right away from them would be wrong.”
Farley said he would strongly oppose any effort to raise the age in which teens are tried as adults.
Fred Clark, of the Schenectady chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he agrees with the idea of changing the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Sixteen-year-olds, he said, don’t think about the consequences.
“Maybe we can turn that 16-year-old’s life around,” Clark said.
But he also said it would be difficult to draw a line between what offenses would be treated as an adult crime and what wouldn’t.
Martha Lasher Warner, of the New York Crime Victims’ Assistance Task Force, said she believes how those ages 16 or 17 should be treated should depend on the crime. Those charged with lower-level felonies could get different treatment, she said, because they could benefit from treatment or other services.
But teens charged with murder or a serious assault should not be treated as youth, she said.
“Anything that’s violent, I think they should be held accountable in adult court, not family court,” she said.