Of Forty 16-Year-Olds Arrested for Felonies, Nine Remain in Criminal Court

 Young people demonstrate in support of Raise the Age prior to passage of the law. Photo via NYS Senate.

Young people demonstrate in support of Raise the Age prior to passage of the law. Photo via NYS Senate.

By David Brand

In the nearly two months since the implementation of Raise the Age, more than three dozen 16-year-olds have been arrested for felonies in Queens, with the majority of cases removed to Family Court under the new law.

In total, 40 16-year-olds had their cases contemplated in Queens Criminal Court under Raise the Age, which moves them from adult jails and transfers most cases to Family Court.

Of those cases, 25 were removed to Family Court, six were dismissed prior to arraignment and nine remained in the Criminal Court’s Youth Part based on the law’s provisions, a spokesperson for the Queens District Attorney’s office said.

The Raise the Age law created a new category of defendants known as Adolescent Offenders (AOs) — 16- or 17-years-olds who are charged with a felony and face adult sentencing — and stipulates that AOs be removed to Family Court unless they are charged with a violent felony. In violent felony cases, removal to Family Court depends on whether the AO allegedly used a firearm or deadly weapon, whether the alleged offense was a sex crime or whether the defendant caused significant physical injury, the law states.

Raise the Age also gives prosecutors significant discretion to prevent a case from being removed to Family Court if they can demonstrate “extraordinary circumstances” related to the crime within 30 days.

Criminal justice reformers have criticized that phrase “extraordinary circumstances” because it is not explicitly defined by state law.

“Raise the Age was intended to ensure that the overwhelming majority of adolescents’ cases are heard in Family Court,” said Julia Davis, the director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare at Children's Defense Fund (CDF), New York. “The ‘extraordinary circumstances’ that merit continuing a case in the Youth Part instead of Family Court should be extremely rare. As implementation unfolds, we want to watch how and when prosecutors attempt to prevent removal to the Family Court, and how judges respond to those arguments.”

In Queens, each case is examined “on a case-by-case basis” by a “senior member of the staff,” the Queens DA spokesperson said.

The spokesperson shared two examples of AO cases that remained in criminal court, but said she did not have information about the other seven.

In one case, a 16-year-old was charged with two separate incidents of first-degree robbery, she said. In another, a 16-year-old faces charges related to beating a person unconscious and stealing their wallet.

It remains unclear how many of those nine cases remain in the Youth Part based on the “extraordinary circumstances” provision. The Youth Part is located within the Criminal Courthouse.

Overall, there were 150 arrests of 16-year-olds in New York State — including 122 in New York City — between Oct. 1 and Nov. 8, said Davis from CDF. Davis said CDF received the statistics from the Office of Children and Family Services, which hosts meetings with agencies that provide foster care and placement for justice-involved youth.

Of those 150 arrests, 115 defendants were arraigned on felony charges in Youth Parts of Criminal Courthouses. A total of 86 were removed from the Youth Part — 12 cases were removed to Family Court and 74 were removed to Probation Intake, Davis said.

The vast majority of adolescent arrests take place in New York City, said Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) Project Director Marissa Saunders. CCA advocates for criminal justice reform and Saunders serves on the Onondaga County Juvenile Justice steering committee.

Saunders said the Raise the Age implementation has “run pretty smoothly” in Onondaga and Monroe Counties and that she is not aware of a prosecutor in those counties using the “extraordinary circumstances” provision to prevent removal of a 16-year-old from the Youth Part.

“‘Extraordinary circumstances’ has not been used to keep youth in criminal [court],’” she said.

“There were two young people [charged with felonies] but they didn’t qualify because they were violent felonies” that automatically remain in the Youth Part, she added.

This article is Part Two in a series about young adults detained on Rikers Island and the implementation of the Raise the Age law.