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State changes criminal approach for youth, older convictions

State changes criminal approach for youth, older convictions

Legislation essentially raises age of criminal responsibility to 18
State changes criminal approach for youth, older convictions
Photographer: Shutterstock

ALBANY — Provisions in the new state budget will give young people facing criminal charges -- and some older people with criminal histories -- a way to reduce the long-term impacts of their mistakes.

The spending plan includes legislation that essentially raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18, sending criminal cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds before a Family Court judge. Family Court records are routinely sealed.

The move leaves North Carolina as the only state that prosecutes all 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court, officials said.

In the adult provision, the measure allows those convicted of certain non-violent and non-sex-abuse-related offenses to petition a judge to seal their records after a 10-year waiting period. Supporters say the move removes a stigma that remains long after a citizen's sentence has been served. 

Local defense attorney Brian Mercy praised both provisions when told about them this week. 

"It's going to give a lot of kids a better chance later on in life," he said.

Mercy called the proposal to allow the sealing of records for adults "another very good idea," especially given the judicial approval required in that process.

The provisions go into effect in six months.

Under the provision for youthful offenders, all misdemeanor charges for 16- and 17-year-olds will be handled in Family Court. Most violent felony charges will be handled in a new criminal court presided over by a Family Court judge. Offenders will have access to additional intervention services and programming there, according to a release from Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie.

Those prosecuted in the new criminal court before a Family Court judge will be treated as adults for sentencing purposes, though their ages would be considered a factor in sentencing.

Heastie called the move "a tremendous victory for communities."

"This is the beginning of a new chapter in New York State where young people are given a chance to grow up and recover from their past wrongdoing without forfeiting their futures," he said in a prepared statement.

Schenectady County Public Defender Steve Signore also praised the new rules, saying many teens are "just too young and just too foolhardy to truly understand the gravity of the circumstances."

"It's difficult to watch a 16-year-old kid go to prison for selling drugs," Signore added. "I've always had a small toll taken on me to see that happen."

The previous system allowed the granting of youthful offender status, which seals court records at the end of the case. Signore said that didn't go far enough.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, however, said not all of their concerns were addressed in the new rules.

Under the provision for older convicts, a judge can grant approval for sealing court records after the citizen has lived for 10 years crime-free from the completion of any sentence.

The move is aimed at removing an obstacle to leading a law-abiding life for people with criminal records. All violent and sex-related offenses are excluded from the law, and district attorneys will have the opportunity to oppose any request to seal records. In such cases, a hearing would be held on the request.

An application to seal records would include a sworn statement from the individual on why the court should grant the request. The judge can consider the circumstances and seriousness of the offense, the defendant's character and the steps he or she has taken toward rehabilitation.

If sealed, the records would be no longer available to the public, though law enforcement and prosecutors would still have access to the information. 

Employers cannot inquire about sealed convictions, according to the state Department of Labor.

The District Attorneys Association supported the measure. 

"For too long, those who have been convicted of relatively minor crimes many years ago have continued to live with the stigma of a criminal conviction long after they have returned to law-abiding and productive lives," said Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, the association's president, in a prepared statement. "We should encourage those who do so to be relieved of the burden of constantly having to be reminded of indiscretions from long ago."

The New York News Publishers Association, however, questioned the move.

"It places newspapers at risk of being unable to accurately cover crime in the courts," said association president Diane Kennedy. "And it places individuals at risk of not having their criminal records accurately covered. It cuts off a source for journalists.

"Newspapers try so hard to be accurate, and it infringes on their ability to be accurate."

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