Last Oct. 1, New York State’s “Raise the Age” (RTA) provisions took effect for 16-year-olds statewide. Designed to end the presumptive criminal prosecution and confinement of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, RTA brought New York into line with 48 other states. Only North Carolina persists in making 16 the default age of criminal responsibility — and it ends that practice later this year. A little over six months into the law’s implementation, New York City is at the center of the reform.

The impact of RTA is felt in all aspects of the youth justice system, from arrests through disposition — the courts’ final determination of cases. Early State data on the RTA rollout are promising. During the first three months of implementation, 75 percent of felony-charged 16-year-olds who were arraigned in a new “Youth Part” of Criminal Court in New York City were transferred to the City Probation Department or to Family Court, where their cases can be “adjusted” (resolved without opening a court case) or proceed in court without being exposed to a permanent criminal record – exactly what the law was designed to do. (The cases of 16-year-olds charged with displaying a deadly weapon, causing “significant injury,” or engaging in unlawful sexual conduct presumptively remain in the Youth Part.) Sixteen-year-olds charged with misdemeanors (other than vehicular and traffic misdemeanors) now also go straight to Family Court.

People across the state have also had their criminal records sealed under RTA. Since October 2017, more than 1,000 people, including more than 400 in New York City, who meet the law’s requirements have successfully petitioned courts to seal previous criminal convictions.

Another important RTA reform involves incarceration. Since last Oct.1, 16-year-olds arrested for offenses after that date throughout the state are no longer to be confined in adult jails. This Oct. 1, that will be true for 17-year-olds as well. New York City got a jump on this requirement; the RTA law required it to move all 16- and 17-year-olds out of the City correctional facility on Rikers Island by last Oct. 1. The City transferred them to the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx.

Accomplishing that was just part of the enormous effort the City has made to implement phase one of RTA. Looking ahead, the City continues to prepare for the second phase-in for 17-year-olds this October. But since the City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) is already serving 17-year-olds at Horizon, in many ways it is ahead of the rest of the State in terms of preparation.

One persistent issue is funding. New York City is currently ineligible for most State funding for Raise the Age implementation. The City has covered this shortfall on its own, committing over $100 million in its current Fiscal Year 2019 budget. In Fiscal Year 2020, the City expects to spend more than $130 million across all City agencies impacted by the law. Whether the City will be responsible for all local RTA implementation costs in the years ahead is an open question.

The City Department of Probation, Family and Criminal Courts, Police Department, and the City’s lawyers have all been impacted by the law, with reorganized systems and expanded needs for staffing, training, and programming. ACS, which oversees juvenile justice services, has been particularly central to preparation and roll-out. As part of its newly expanded role serving older youth, ACS provides case management, programming, and services in two detention centers. Crossroads, located in Brooklyn, houses 16-year-old youth charged with felonies under RTA — known as “adolescent offenders” — as well as youth charged as juvenile delinquents and juvenile offenders. ACS and the City Department of Correction (DOC) co-administer Horizon, in the Bronx, which houses the youth removed from Rikers Island and also so-called “gap-year” youth who are 17 and face prosecution as adults until this Oct. 1.

DOC currently provides security at Horizon, and will until ACS replaces DOC staff with new Youth Development Specialists (YDSs). This changeover, which is essential to meeting the RTA goal of removing youth from settings with an adult correctional culture, is to be completed next year.

RTA is also impacting the City’s Close to Home program, which keeps youth adjudicated as juvenile delinquents in Family Court in facilities in the City (or neighboring Westchester County) rather than placing them in distant State facilities, as was true in the past. As the population covered by RTA expands, Close to Home may have to grow too. So far, the City has had enough capacity in existing Close to Home sites; a decline in juvenile arrests and detention have meant that the number of young people entering Close to Home decreased 39 percent between July and November 2018 — just as RTA went into effect, freeing spaces for incoming youth. However, as with RTA, the City receives no State funding for Close to Home, and that puts pressure on the City to support the program at a time when it could expand resources for other community-based investments in youth justice.

Children’s Defense Fund-NY and other advocates are watching RTA implementation with a keen interest in ensuring fidelity to the law’s principles and improving upon it where necessary. As we hear from stakeholders working on the frontlines and from youth and families about their experiences of this new landscape, we and other advocates in the Raise the Age coalition are pushing for additional reforms, including:

  • Starting as many cases of 16-and 17-year-olds in Family Court as possible.
  • Ensuring that when 16- and 17-year-olds must be detained or otherwise incarcerated they are held in juvenile facilities without adult corrections involvement or oversight.
  • Strengthening and expanding existing legal protections for older youth in criminal court through sentencing alternatives like Youthful Offender status, and expanding similar protections to older youth.
  • Raising the lower age of juvenile delinquency from age 7 to age 12.
  • Expanding support for community-based services, including mental and behavioral health services, for youth.
  • Restoring State support for Close to Home, as well as RTA implementation in all communities, including New York City.

What we learn from RTA implementation will inform our future priorities and shed light on additional areas of our youth justice system that require our work

Julia L. Davis is the Director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare at Children’s Defense Fund-NY. This article was originally published by Urban Matters