In January, New York mayor Eric Adams published a “Blueprint to End Gun Violence.” Within its recommended policy reforms is a paragraph proposing changes to New York State’s Raise the Age law. “Too many New Yorkers in their late teens and early twenties have abused this change,” the blueprint argues, “demanding young people under 18 take the fall for guns that are not truly theirs.” But this aspect represents just one major problem with Raise the Age. The law has also monumentally undermined how New York’s judicial system tries, punishes, deters, instructs, and tracks youth offenders.
Raise the Age was signed into law in 2017 to delay criminal responsibility for most crimes committed by those under the age of 18. A 2021 report by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency—the group that interviews arrestees—validates Mayor Adams’s assertion that the law has led to more youth violence. Nearly half of 16-year-olds arrested in the first year of Raise the Age were rearrested within 15 months, including more than one-third for committing a felony and more than one-quarter for committing a violent felony. These numbers significantly outpace similar arrests a year earlier before Raise the Age took effect, as well as the recidivism rate for 17-year-olds arrested over the same period.
The policy created a set of impossibly convoluted rules and systems. After the law’s implementation, a task force commissioned by the heads of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Office of Children and Family Services published a 70-page report to address the resulting complexity. But the report leaves the reader mystified, for example, as to whether a kid caught with a gun should be classified as a “juvenile delinquent” rather than a “juvenile offender” when he’s old enough to be an “adolescent offender” but is treated as a “youthful offender.”
Confused? You’re not alone. Policymakers can’t fix the problem when the new system is impossible to understand. Two different courts handle offenders charged under the law: the Family Court, which does not impose criminal liability, and the Youth Part, an adult court part that must be presided over by a Family Court judge, and which may impose criminal liability. Age significantly influences where one ends up. Under legislation passed this year, those aged seven to 11 no longer enter the court system at all (they get social services instead) unless charged with homicide. Those charged with homicide go to Family Court. Those aged 12 to 15 go to Family Court for juvenile-delinquent proceedings, unless they are aged 13 to 15 and committed a more serious crime, in which case they’re eligible for the Youth Part as juvenile offenders. And those aged 16 to 18 also go to the Youth Part but as adolescent offenders, unless they are charged only with a misdemeanor or lesser offense, in which case they go to Family Court.
The tangled system practically ensures inconsistent and bad outcomes. Family Court judges, who cannot convict anyone of anything, can detain a juvenile delinquent (the youngest group) based on his serious risk of committing another crime—but Youth Part judges cannot detain on that basis, even though they can convict of a crime. The result: in 2020, Family Court judges presided over 870 juvenile-delinquent proceedings and 700 ordered detention times. In the Youth Part, judges presided over 1,704 arraignments over adolescent offenders and ordered detention only 260 times, essentially for risk of flight. Once offenders are in the system, it’s chaos: more than two assaults are reported per day in New York City juvenile-detention facilities alone.
Per Raise the Age, the Youth Part can keep adolescents charged with nonviolent offenses only under “extraordinary circumstances,” a term the state legislature left undefined. For violent felonies, the legislature allowed Youth Part judges to consider additional factors to justify keeping a case. But again, uncertainty prevails: when assistant district attorneys must prove a defendant caused “significant physical injury,” they cannot base their court arguments on language in the Penal Law, as that term, too, remains undefined. This problem was illustrated last week, when prosecutors were prohibited from criminally charging 16-year-old rapper Camrin “C Blu” Williams for firing a gunshot through his pants that struck a cop. A Bronx judge sent that case to Family Court in part because of how she interpreted “significant physical injury.”
All this ambiguity has opened a door for judges’ biases—and Raise the Age gives immense discretion to judges. Youth Part judges can override bail set by other judges and can often more or less unilaterally determine whether cases against adolescent offenders stay criminal cases—even though they don’t have that power for the younger juvenile offenders.
The Youth Part system has another flaw. While the court is not actually part of Family Court, it must be presided over by a Family Court judge. Irrespective of a Youth Part judge’s usual jurisdiction, he doesn’t possess the powers necessary to access Family Court records. Imagine a 17-year-old gets arrested with a gun one day and, for whatever reason, his case is moved to Family Court the next day. If he is arrested with another gun the following day, that fact often can’t be used to maintain a new case in the Youth Part. And he will, in the eyes of the judge, be a brand-new defendant in the criminal-justice system and therefore less likely to face prosecution—even if the same judge arraigned him for every one of those guns.
So while Mayor Adams was right to push for dialing back Raise the Age, he should go further. The law not only encourages gangs to foist guns into the hands of its youngest members but also creates a system for handling youth offenders that is so convoluted it makes justice nearly impossible to serve.