Lentol reveals how he got ‘Raise the Age’ passed

Lawmaker waged 12-year fight to save juvenile offenders

April 24, 2017 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Assemblymember Joe Lentol used the analogy of a 16-year-old’s birthday to explain the inequities of New York State’s criminal justice law. Photo courtesy of Lentol’s office
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State Assemblymember Joe Lentol was walking out of the state Capitol in Albany one day when a woman came up to him and gave him a big hug. “Thank you for saving my son’s life,” she told him. The brief encounter made him cry.

It turned out that the woman had a teenage son who had been in trouble with the law. She hugged Lentol, the leader of the Assembly’s Brooklyn delegation, to express her undying gratitude to him for his successful effort in getting the State Legislature to pass a bill to keep the cases of young offenders in Family Court rather than Criminal Court.

“It’s not often that you pass a bill and get a reaction like that,” Lentol (D-North Brooklyn) told the Brooklyn Eagle over a meal at Peter Luger’s in the Williamsburg section of his district.

Lentol’s bill, called “Raise the Age,” literally raises the age in which most young criminal suspects will be tried as adults from 16 to 18.

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The bill was passed by both the state Assembly and state Senate on April 9 and was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The law will take effect in 2018. Thanks to the new law, young offenders will no longer automatically be sent to Criminal Court.

“This has been the most satisfying legislative session I’ve ever had and it’s because of this bill,” Lentol told the Eagle.

Up until now, New York and North Carolina were the only two states in the country that treated 16 and 17 year old offenders as adults in the criminal justice system.

For Lentol, getting the “Raise the Age” bill to Cuomo’s desk took 12 long years.

His effort included writing and then rewriting the legislation, gathering input from legal experts, engaging in delicate negotiations with Republican members of the state Senate and at the 11th-hour, consulting a dictionary.

Under “Raise the Age,” most 16- and 17-year-old suspects will be handled in Family Court, not Criminal Court.

To handle teens charged with certain crimes, the new law establishes a “Youth Part” within the Criminal Court system in which judges with specialized training in Family Court will hear the cases.

A teenage suspect’s case will be sent to Family Court after 30 days unless a district attorney is able to convince a judge that “extraordinary circumstances” exist to compel action in Criminal Court.

By raising the age and sending kids to Family Court instead of Criminal Court, the state is still cracking down on offenders, Lentol said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t get punished,” he told the Eagle.

Lentol’s advocacy of “Raise the Age” began back in 2005 when he was approached by Hon. Michael Corriero, a judge in the New York State Court of Claims, who suggested that he investigate the possibility of raising the legal definition of young offender from 16 to 18.

Lentol and Corriero had known each other for many years. “We went to law school together,” Lentol said.

During his career behind the bench, Corriero presided over many youth offender cases. Lentol remembered his old friend telling him, “The system is unfair.”

Young offenders were winding up in jail next to hardened criminals. Instead of becoming rehabilitated, the kids learned how to commit more crimes, Lentol said.

Using the example of a boy who is one day shy of his 16th birthday, Lentol said that if the boy commits a crime, he is considered a young offender and is sent to Family Court because, technically, he is 15 years old. But if that same boy committed a crime on his 16th birthday, he was considered an adult, wound up in Criminal Court and was possibly shipped to Rikers Island.

“And you’re talking about a difference of one day,” Lentol said.

The more Lentol looked into it, the more he was convinced raising the age was right.

He found a flurry of statistics to back up his beliefs.

According to a brain development study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network, the human brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. The study also found that adolescent behavior is often impulsive.

Lentol had a plainspoken explanation for the data. “The science says they’re still kids,” he said.

Another statistic states that each year, nearly 28,000 16- and 17-year-olds in New York state are arrested, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The vast majority, 72 percent, are arrested for misdemeanors.

Young people whose cases wind up in Criminal Court are 34 percent more likely to be re-arrested than youths processed through the Family Court, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In 2011, the issue of young offenders in Criminal Court began to catch on.

That year, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, of the New York State Court of Appeals, delivered a speech to the Citizens Crime Commission at Fordham University about the issue. The commission is run by Richard Aborn and Lippman’s speech, along with the advocacy of Corriero and Aborn, brought the issue to the forefront.

In 2013, Lippman again discussed the Raise the Age issue in his State of the Judiciary Address.

Meanwhile, Lentol had made repeated attempts over the years to get his legislation passed. But his fellow legislators always raised objections.

In 2014, Cuomo issued an executive order to establish the Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, which was charged with the task of developing a plan to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction. The Commission issued its report in 2015.

Finally this year, the picture started to brighten for Lentol, in part because Cuomo made it clear he wanted legislation. “The governor wanted to get a bill badly,” Lentol said.

In addition, Lentol had an important ally in Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “Carl Heastie had the foresight to get it done,” Lentol said. “He demanded that this be negotiated in the budget.”

The negotiations began in earnest. Lentol and two of his colleagues, Assemblymembers Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens) and Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), sat in a room with GOP state senators to hammer out a deal.

The negotiations were unusual because only the assemblymembers and senators attended. No staff members were present.

Assemblymember Helene Weinstein (D-Sheepshead Bay-Flatlands), chairperson of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, came to a few of the sessions. Members of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference were also part of the negotiations.

After much haggling, it was agreed that a young offender’s case could be sent to Criminal Court under any one of three conditions: 1) If there is use of a weapon, 2) If it is a sex crime and 3) If the crime results in significant physical injury to the victim.

The last point was a source of disagreement between Lentol and the GOP senators. The Republicans wanted any physical injury, even a bloody nose, to count as a significant injury and push the case into Criminal Court.

The lawmakers disagreed over the definition of significant injury. “We had to get the dictionary out,” Lentol said.

After cracking open the dictionary, they agreed that significant injury meant more than just a bloody nose.

“We got it done,” Lentol said.

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