By Justine Gonzalez
On January 8, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in his State of the State address that “our juvenile justice laws are outdated.” Noting that New York remains one of only two states that continues to prosecute youth as adults beginning at age 16, the Governor said, “It’s not right. It’s not fair. We must raise the age.” On April 9, 2014, Governor Cuomo officially announced his appointees to the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and named as its co-chairs, Soffiyah Elijah (Executive Director of The Correctional Association of New York) and Jeremy Creelan (Partner, Jenner & Block and former Special Counsel to Gov. Cuomo). The Commission’s purpose was to propose recommendations on how to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction and generally improve outcomes for young people involved in New York’s juvenile justice system while continuing to strengthen public safety. The Commission was comprised of members representing a diverse group of stakeholders including representatives from the law enforcement, probation, advocacy, court system, and philanthropic communities.
The Commission’s Final Report, released on January 19, 2015, provides a comprehensive introduction to past reforms and the current state of New York’s juvenile justice system. The Commission recommends that state legislators raise the age of criminal responsibility to 17 by 2017 and 18 by 2018. The report goes on to suggest that the minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction also be increased to 12 from 7. Other recommendations include expanding youthful offender status to include youth up to 20 years old and to allow nonviolent offenders between 18 and 21 to have their records sealed if they are not convicted of any crimes for the subsequent five years.
Informed by research on the collateral consequences of incarceration of juveniles, the Commission’s recommendations address how youth are treated at every phase of justice system contact: when arrested, when processed by the court system, and when detained or incarcerated. It is in light of these considerations that they recommend removing all youth from adult facilities and out of solitary confinement altogether.
Elizabeth Glazer, the NYC Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, spoke emphatically about the Commission findings, stating that “These recommendations will ensure an evidence-driven, total modernization of New York State’s juvenile justice practices that will improve both public safety and long-term outcomes for troubled young people in our City and State”.
The effort to create a more age appropriate juvenile justice system is also an investment in the health and well-being of all New Yorkers. Commission Co-chair Soffiyah Elijah drives this point home, saying that “our children are our most precious and valuable resource. How we respond to their youthful mistakes and misdeeds determines the society we create for ourselves. We must provide them with all the protections, supports and opportunities to succeed. The Commission’s Recommendations seek to accomplish that.”
Angelo Pinto, the Raise the Age Campaign Manager at the Correctional Association of New York further reinforces just how indispensable these reforms are to the health and safety of New York, stating that “raising the age of criminal responsibility will transform New York’s criminal justice landscape, bringing New York in line with a vast body of research about what works to reduce crime and help young people. It is our belief that these reforms will reduce the number of individuals who come in contact with the system, and improve outcomes- including public safety- for those kids who are justice-involved.”
Emily Tow Jackson, the President and Executive Director of the Tow Foundation and member of the Commission on Youth, Public Safety, and is “thrilled that the Governor has embraced the recommendations of the Commission in total. It represents taking New York from being behind in justice reform to potentially being a national leader.” Notably, she reflected on the importance of consensus in this process, “Everyone on the Commission came together on a set of recommendations that we all felt was a very important step in the right direction. It is important to rally behind these recommendations and not focus on what wasn’t included.”
While Governor Cuomo indicated he would embrace the Commission’s recommendations in his 2015 State of the State address, significant work remains in order to guarantee these reforms are implemented and carried out as smoothly and effectively as possible.
To navigate the contours of a difficult political process, often fraught with challenges raised out of fear of being “soft on crime” and a return of the “bad old days,” special attention must be paid to messaging and communication. Soffiyah Elijah, in an interview with the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative coordinator, stated that “in order to ensure that these policy proposals turn into actual reform they need to be thoroughly understood and widely embraced across the state. Our elected officials need to know that their constituents want these changes. Our youth justice system is extremely complex. Finding a way to translate it into talking points that the public and elected officials will understand and embrace is essential. Advocacy campaigns that include these components on a state-wide basis must be supported by philanthropic efforts in order for New York to successfully reform its youth justice system.”
It is important to engage and educate the entire community on the benefits of these reforms, even without directly supporting legislation. Emily Tow Jackson hopes “we can come together and support some educational forums for groups like correction officers and police chiefs and others from the law enforcement community, as well as other groups who might express concerns. We can help create materials and forums for them to ask questions and get better information on the potential benefits of Raise the Age.” She believes funders can support advocacy efforts by organizing groups of families and those affected by these reforms to offer testimony and to bolster lobbying and communication that is necessary to get this legislation passed. Ms. Tow Jackson went on to say that funders can give general unrestricted funding to advocacy groups so that they can mobilize legislators and other stakeholders in Albany.
The philanthropic community can play a pivotal role in the advancement of these reforms. Angelo Pinto believes that “the philanthropic community has been an important partner in supporting advocacy organizations to create the groundswell that enabled us to get this far, and will be crucial to the on-going advocacy needed to pass legislation and ensure its successful implementation. The Commission’s carefully crafted recommendations reflect a consensus among a diverse group of stakeholders about the concrete steps necessary to take our state from last in the nation to national leader.”