By David Brand
Beginning Monday, defendants under age 17 will no longer be detained in county jails and Rikers Island as mandated by a state law known as Raise the Age.
Under the law — signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo nearly a year and a half ago — children younger than 17 who are charged with most offenses wil alsol be diverted from criminal court to family court. In 2019, 17-year-olds will be moved off Rikers and have their cases heard in family court.
In the days leading up to the Raise the Age implementation, questions and concerns from city council members, corrections officers and even juvenile-justice reformers have persisted. But officials from Children’s Defense Fund, the organization that spearheaded the Raise the Age campaign said it remains “excited” for the measures to take effect in Queens and throughout New York City.
“The purpose [of Raise the Age] is to make sure kids are treated like kids and family court is place for that,” Children’s Defense Fund Director of Youth Justice and Child Welfare Julia Davis told the Eagle Friday. “New York City is ready for Raise the Age on Monday.”
Advocates say the law will go a long way toward making the criminal justice system fairer for children and young people.
According to state arrest data, more than 21,300 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested and faced the possibility of prosecution as an adult in 2017.
Though black and Latino young people make up just 33 percent of all 16 and 17 year olds in New York, black and Latino children account for 72 percent of all arrests and 77 percent of felony arrests among children in the state, the governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice reported.
Until the Raise the Age law takes effect, New York remains one of only two states in the country to treat child offenders as adults in the criminal justice system. The other is North Carolina, which recently passed similar legislation.
Under the law, the city will transfer about 100 children currently staying at Rikers to Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, where they will be under the supervision of court officers.
The city has not yet hired enough social service providers to adequately staff the facility and prison reform advocates say.
“If the critical mass of staff are people steeped in the environment you’re trying to get away from, you’re going to start with huge handicaps,” Fortune Society President JoAnne Page told the Wall Street Journal.
The Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association — which is headquartered in East Elmhurst — has opposed moving children to the Horizon facility as a violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement. They have filed a lawsuit against the city to prevent the Raise the Age implementation
“COBA is due back in State Supreme Court in Queens on Monday Oct. 1st to present our arguments on the merits of our lawsuit and to once again expose the City’s lies over how Correction Officers will be deployed at the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center,” said COBA President Elias Husamudeen in a statement.
The leaders of the state’s two court officers unions have also opposed the implementation of Raise the Age, saying the family courts are not adequately staffed to accommodate the safe introduction of more teenage defendants.
“We are short 350 to 400 court officers,” New York State Court Officers Association President Dennis Quirk said at a press conference Tuesday. “If we can't feel safe, how can the general public which uses the courts every day feel safe?"
The unions represent about 3,500 officers. Quirk and NYS Supreme Court Officers Association President Patrick Cullen said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks have refused to meet with them.
“Sooner or later someone is going to be killed, and their death will be on the plate of the chief judge and the chief administrative judge,” Cullen said.
As of press time, COBA, Quirk and Cullen did not respond to request for comment from the Eagle.
Davis said the reliance on corrections officers is not ideal but said her organization believes the city will uphold its commitment to hire more staff — known as youth development specialists — trained to work with children.
“While we are concerned about the use of corrections officers in the Horizon facility, we understand that city will work as quickly as possible to hire the youth development specialists that it needs,” she said. “Children’s Defense Fund is supportive of the work the city has done to get ready for implementation of the law, including the removal of young people off Rikers.”
Davis said she believes there is “no legal barrier to the facility being staffed and young people being moved off the island.”
She also said the family court system in Queens and elsewhere in New York is prepared to accommodate 16-year-old defendants.
There has been a tremendous amount of preparation and we are very excited,” Davis said.
The Unified Court System is also prepared for the changes, said spokesperson Lucian Chalfen.
The New York State Courts have worked tirelessly to prepare for this groundbreaking law,” Chalfen said. “We’ve created and staffed new Youth Parts, expanded capacity for Family Court proceedings, especially in New York City, for the older adolescents that court will now address, and expanded access to court for youth arrested after hours to ensure they go before specially trained criminal court “accessible magistrate” judges to be promptly heard on detention status. In addition, we’ve created a new case management system to carefully track and provide statewide data regarding all raise the age impacted youth. Our Judges and non-judicial staff are well-trained and prepared.”