By David Brand
Queens trails every other borough in implementing a state law designed to move the majority of children charged with felonies out of criminal court, but soon a new district attorney will exert major influence over the fate of many kids’ cases.
The “Raise the Age” law designated 16-year-olds charged with crimes as “adolescent offenders” (AOs) and mandated that they be removed from criminal court except when charged with sex crimes or certain violent offenses. The law will expand to include 17 year olds in October.
Roughly 79 percent of AOs have had their cases removed from criminal court across New York City during the first nine months of the law, according to a report by the Department of Criminal Justice Services. But Queens has not kept pace with the rest of the city or state, the Eagle reported Tuesday.
Queens Criminal Court has a 57 percent removal rate, the lowest in the city and in stark contrast to the 92 percent removal rate in neighboring Brooklyn.
Defense attorneys say that disparity could be based on a prosecutor’s power to argue for children’s cases to remain in criminal court via an “extraordinary circumstances” provision of the law. Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for DA, said she would make the argument sparingly.
“The ‘extraordinary circumstances’ clause to keep AO cases in adult court should be used in only the most severe cases and would require my approval,” Katz said in a statement to the Eagle, adding that her “office will be utilizing family court as much as possible” for AOs.
Katz’s spokesperson declined to elaborate on what would constitute an “extraordinary circumstance” when asked for clarification.
Defense attorney Joe Murray, the Republican nominee for DA, wrote a lengthy response when asked about the low rate of adolescent offenders removed from criminal court.
Murray said he does not believe children should be automatically removed from criminal court if they committed a violent felony, but he said he suspects the Queens DA’s Office is using a one-size-fits-all approach to cases involving teenagers.
“Several times, I have represented clients that had such unique circumstances warranting a second chance or reduced punishment due to obvious mitigation, which was ignored or dismissed by members of the Queens District Attorney’s Office,” Murray said. “As such, I believe in the use of discretion.”
He also speculated that assistant DAs may be arguing to keep kids in criminal court if they are allegedly involved with gangs.
But Murray said he would not be able to give an accurate response about the removal rate without first being elected and leading the office.
“In any event, upon reviewing these numbers, I may find that the rate should be higher or lower depending on what I find on a case by case basis,” he said.
“As to how my administration would proceed, I do not subscribe to this progressive-socialist mantra that criminal justice is all about the defendant, the defendant’s rights, and what would be best for the defendant,” he added.
The Queens DA’s Office has not responded to multiple questions about the use of the “extraordinary circumstances” provision.
In November 2018, a spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office said the “legislation fails to define ‘extraordinary circumstances’” and added that prosecutors would “have to determine what it means on a case-by-case basis.”
“We would take into account such things as the type of crime committed; the defendant's criminal history, if any; any injuries to the victim; and any other pertinent information surrounding the commission of the alleged crime.” the spokesperson added. “There is no one specific thing that we can point to that would tell us that we have a case with ‘extraordinary circumstances’ nor can we tell with specificity in what types of cases we would be filing such a motion.”