This past October, New York saw the first phase of the new Raise the Age (RTA) legislation take effect, setting the age of criminal responsibility in this state at 17. The second phase takes effect this upcoming October, when the age of criminal responsibility will rise to 18. Implementation of the first phase of the new law was the product of a highly successful collaborative effort among numerous agencies and criminal justice stakeholders. Within the court system itself, judicial and nonjudicial administrators across the state were integral to the preparations for RTA implementation, with a focus on ensuring that core values—fairness, community safety, continuity of counsel and court of record, and speed of case movement—were preserved.
Previously, New York was one of only two remaining states (North Carolina being the other) to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Long overdue, this legislation (once fully implemented) removes cases involving most adolescents under the age of 18 charged with criminal conduct from the adult criminal court system and places them rightly with other youths in the Family Court system. Those adolescents accused of felonies who remain in the superior criminal court also may no longer be incarcerated in adult facilities and are instead placed in specialized juvenile detention facilities certified by the State Office of Children and Family Services, in conjunction with the State Commission of Correction. Significantly, adolescents and their families will benefit from rehabilitative and support resources not otherwise available in adult criminal court.
Once the legislation is fully implemented, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors will be treated as juvenile delinquents, with their cases handled in Family Court. RTA creates a new classification called Adolescent Offenders for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with felonies. These cases are commenced in newly established superior court Youth Parts and are presided over by specially trained judges. The cases may be removed from the Youth Part to Family Court depending on the severity of the felony charges, as well as other circumstances. The Youth Part also has jurisdiction over all cases involving Juvenile Offenders, 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds charged with designated felonies in the adult criminal justice system. The vast majority of youth will be handled in the Family Court system, and for many of those, probation departments may “adjust,” or divert, the cases, with a Family Court petition never being filed.
Great preparation went into satisfying requirements of the new legislation, in a short timeframe. New York hit the ground running and, through a concerted collaborative effort, met the goal of instituting phase one of the RTA legislation in less than 18 months after the law was enacted. All aspects of the legislation were examined during planning and implementation. The court system established its own internal committee to formulate a statewide plan for smooth implementation, co-chaired by Deputy Chief Administrative Judges Edwina Mendelson and Michael Coccoma. The Committee held collaborative meetings with a wide range of government agencies that were engaged in their own implementation efforts, including, among others, the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the State Office of Children and Family Services, the State Commission on Correction, the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.
Concurrently, Judge Mendelson co-chaired a parallel effort with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice for Raise the Age implementation, first city-wide and subsequently in each county. A successor coordination team run by the Mayor’s Office continues that work, with bi-weekly meetings to discuss RTA-related issues that arise. Likewise, all District Administrative Judges outside of NYC worked with stakeholders (defense, prosecution, probation, law enforcement, service providers, etc.) to plan cohesive implementation within their districts. Governor Cuomo also convened an RTA Implementation Task Force prior to implementation, consisting of judicial, law enforcement and social service experts, among others, which continues to meet, review, and evaluate the effectiveness of RTA implementation. The Task Force is assessing implementation both statewide and at the local level and will be formally reporting on the two phases of the implementation.
Structural and operational changes were adopted to ready the courts for managing a systemic change of this magnitude. The Committee developed a recommended practice guide and detailed region-specific operational templates to assist the state’s Administrative Judges in implementing the new law in their respective jurisdictions. Judicial and non-judicial assignments were modified and courtrooms were physically relocated, all to accommodate the newly created Youth Parts, as well as the changes to Family Courts and the anticipated after-hours arraignments throughout the state. The legislation impacted the court system’s court data collection and record-keeping. A wholly new statewide case tracking system was developed for the Youth Parts, allowing for RTA data to be accessed and monitored in one place to improve disposition reporting and data analysis—a system that will ultimately be universally implemented in all superior courts for all categories of cases.
Education and training has been a major component of the preparations for RTA implementation. The RTA Committee, in conjunction with the court system’s Judicial Institute, provided comprehensive training for Youth Part judges and Accessible Magistrates (who handle after-hours arraignments under the statute, as well as “pre-petition” hearings for juvenile delinquents) to ensure compliance with the statutory requirements of the law. At the Summer Judicial Seminars, mandatory programs with a dedicated track of courses focused on RTA legislation were provided. The seminars were highly effective and the presentations were excellent—with a full week of material video-recorded and available for future access. There is an RTA SharePoint platform available to court personnel containing links to the RTA statute, FAQs, and the court system’s implementation plan, as well as links to the Judicial Institute’s training materials, checklists, PowerPoint presentations, and podcasts on raising the age of criminal responsibility in New York. Training on the new law was also provided throughout the state for key nonjudicial personnel.
Additionally, to further ensure judges and non-judicial personnel are fully informed on the changes brought on by the new legislation, an RTA handbook and benchcard have been prepared for judges and staff.
While RTA implementation has been largely successful, some concerns have emerged. Operational issues have been identified and are being addressed, such as detention and placement issues and necessary changes in legal forms. The court system even created a 24-hour 800 number providing immediate guidance for judges and court staff with RTA-related questions.
Fortunately, so far there have been relatively few cases subject to the new law commenced since the statute’s effective date. That volume, however, will certainly increase next October when the age of criminal responsibility is raised to 18. Although increased volume may bring greater stress on operations, the extensive ongoing preparation will ensure that the second phase of implementation proceeds smoothly as well.
Implementation of the RTA legislation has had an auspicious start. Given the effective collaborative efforts of all relevant government agencies, and within the court system itself, raising the age of criminal responsibility has been highly successful with few hurdles in its path. Due to meticulous preparation, concerns have been swiftly identified and addressed, ensuring that adolescents, without compromising community safety, receive the highest caliber of justice removed from the harsh setting of the adult criminal system.