By David Brand
A 2018 state law designed to move the vast majority of children charged with felonies out of criminal court has had an uneven roll out across the city, with Queens Criminal Court continuing to keep kids’ cases at a rate that far exceeds the other boroughs.
The state Raise the Age law, implemented Oct. 1, 2018, designated 16-year-olds charged with crimes as “adolescent offenders” and mandated that they be removed from criminal court except when charged with sex crimes or certain violent offenses. The law created in each criminal courthouse special “youth parts” where children are now arraigned and will expand to include 17-year-olds as adolescent offenders this October.
In New York City, 79 percent of the 16-year-olds arraigned in criminal court — 616 of 776 — were removed to family court or probation intake during the first nine months under Raise the Age, according to data compiled by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. The rate was nearly the same statewide — 997 of 1,264 of adolescent offenders were removed from criminal court youth parts, DCJS reported.
But in Queens, just 57 percent of 16-year-olds were removed from criminal court — by far the lowest rate of the five boroughs. Of the 127 16-year-olds arraigned in Queens, 73 were removed to family court or probation intake from Oct. 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, according to DCJS.
In contrast, nearly 92 percent of 16-year olds charged with felonies in Brooklyn were removed from criminal court.
The Bronx removed about 82 percent of 16-year-olds from adult criminal court. Manhattan removed about 76 percent and Staten Island removed exactly two-thirds of 16-year-olds from criminal court.
Under Raise the Age, children charged with violent felonies remain in criminal court if they allegedly used a firearm or deadly weapon, if the alleged offense was a sex crime or if they — and not someone else in their group — caused significant physical injury.
The measure also gives prosecutors discretion to demonstrate that “extraordinary circumstances” mean a 16-year-old should remain in criminal court — something the Queens DA’s Office does more than other NYC prosecutors, said Legal Aid Society Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team Director Nancy Ginsburg.
“The Queens DA’s office for sure is moving to retain more often than the other prosecutors’ offices, except Manhattan,” Ginsburg said.
“But honestly I’m surprised to see that number,” she said explaining that Legal Aid has been largely successful in combating prosecutors’ attempts to keep children’s cases in criminal court.
The Queens DA’s Office often argues that a child is “gang-affiliated” as an “extraordinary circumstance,” Ginsburg said. The judge presiding in the Youth Part — in Queens, Judge Lenora Gerald — makes the ultimate decision on the prosecutor’s motion to retain the case.
Queens and Manhattan both “hold onto cases for longer,” Ginsburg said.
“It undermines the goal of adjudicating these cases with speed,” she said. “I understand when there’s something real to litigate but just to litigate for the sake of litigating seems not to be in line with the spirit of the law.”
The Queens DA’s Office did not respond to requests for comment as of press time Tuesday.
The nine-month rate of removal reported by DCJS is lower than the rate in Queens during the first two months under the law, according to data shared by the Queens DA’s Office in November 2018.
Forty 16-year-olds were arrested for felonies in Queens in October and November 2018 and six of their cases were dismissed pre-arraignment.
All but nine of the remaining 34 were removed from criminal court — a rate of 74 percent.
In one case, a 16-year-old was charged with two separate incidents of first-degree robbery, a spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office said at the time. In another, a 16-year-old faced charges related to beating a person unconscious and stealing their wallet.
Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, there were 56 total 16-year-olds arrested for felonies in Queens and nine were not prosecuted, the DA’s Office said. Thirty-two of the remaining 47 children were removed from criminal court — a rate of 68 percent.