In October 2018, a year from now, 16 year olds who commit misdemeanors will no longer be treated as adults in court. And two years from now, all minors will be given age-appropriate consequences when they commit a crime. The battle to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility was long and hard-fought by advocates and lawmakers. In part one of his series, Nick Reisman takes a look at how the new law came to be.
In 2015, Marquis Dixon was sentenced to nine years for the armed robbery for stealing a pair of sneakers. He was 16.
“You're 16 and they tell you, you're only in the 10th grade, you're only in high school, and you have a judge telling you, you got to go to prison for nine years. But I took it, like, ‘did I hear you correctly?’” said Aisha Dixon, Marquis's mom.
Marquis Dixon was later granted youthful offender status, but not before he spent time in prison, with older inmates convicted of more serious crimes.
“He's inside a maximum security prison with murderers, rapists, and all that and they're getting to seeing these they never should see in their life,” Aisha Dixon said.
The same year Marquis Dixon was convicted, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged in his State of the State address to change the juvenile justice system -- treating 16 and 17-year-olds accused and convicted of crimes as children, not adults.
“Let's raise the age of criminal responsibility to get 16 and 17 year-olds out of the adult prisons where they're being hurt, not helped,” said Cuomo.
The law passed this year and it takes effect next October. But the road to the measure's passage actually began several years earlier, with a pilot program that saw some juvenile offenders diverted to specialized courts.
“Our point was to show this approach could work,” said Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge
The pilot program was backed by then-Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. It set up diversion programs across the state, including in New York City and in Erie County. Despite some differences in how courts function in those areas, Lippman says the results were ultimately the same: the Youthful offenders generally did not commit crimes again.
“Upstate and downstate -- everyone got it. Everyone got it in the end that the main goal here was to save our children and to not do something that impacted negatively on a young person for the rest of their lives,” said Lippman.
By the time the statewide, legislative push began, New York and North Carolina were the last states to try those as young as 16 in criminal court. New York also has a history of passing measures deemed to be tough on crime, like the so-called Rockefeller drug laws. Republican lawmakers noted the relatively small number of those under 18 who are actually convicted and sent to prison.
“They can be productive, responsible, successful members of society, absolutely. But I think our focus from the Senate is protecting public safety while addressing the differences of 16 and 17-year-olds,” said Senator Pat Gallivan, R-Elma.
Supporters said changing that philosophy was a challenge.
“I think there was also a divide, an upstate and downstate divide, in how they viewed these issues and whether there would be significant consequences for their respective districts. So, we had to begin a process four years ago of educating the Legislature about raising the age,” said Alphonso David, part of the Cuomo administration counsel.
Raise the age supporters argued it was a matter, too, of saving money.
“We really needed to do this not as a matter of social policy but also as a matter of fiscal policy. We end up saving money and treating these kids as kids, and from a public policy perspective, it made sense on every level,” David said.
Marquis Dixon is no longer a kid, but still dealing the consequences of his crime. After being released on youthful offender status, Dixon was arrested for parole violations, threatening his mother with a knife and for using counterfeit money. His mother says Marquis is working to get his life back on track. But it is a challenge.
“My child that I knew at 16 that went in there is not the same child that came home,” she said.
Coming up in part two of this series, Nick Reisman takes a look at the impact implementation is having on law enforcement at the county level.