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Legal system off to slow start on ‘Raise the Age’ night-court fix

October 10, 2019 Eileen Grench, THE CITY

This story was originally published on Oct. 10 by THE CITY.

A legislative fix intended to spare 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a felony from adult court and send them straight to family court on nights and weekends is having a rough beginning.

Not one child brought in after hours to courts in Manhattan, Staten Island and Brooklyn has been sent directly to family court since Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the amendment to the historic “Raise the Age” law in mid-August, according to the Office of Court Administration.

The new system’s only been used twice in The Bronx and four times in Queens, according to spokespeople for the district attorneys in those boroughs.

“I think sometimes turning things takes a little bit of time,” State Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx, Westchester), who sponsored the legislative fix, told THE CITY.

Elevating Raise the Age

When the Raise the Age law rolled out last fall — stopping the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults — supporters hailed the move for sparing teens criminal justice system trauma.

But initially only certain “youth part” judges, who work 9-to-5 schedules, could remove teens from criminal court and transfer them to family court — where there are no fines, punishments are less harsh and records don’t have the same lasting effect.

The idea was that only judges specially trained in family law could decide which court a 16- or 17-year-old would wind up in.

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But it turned out a large percentage of these teens, brought in at night and on weekends, were not getting a chance to see a judge until night court, where there is no youth part. The youths and waiting relatives would have to return the next morning for a transfer to family court.

“A child might have to go to school. Some parents can’t take two days off last minute like that,”  said Lisa Salvatore, a supervising attorney with the Brooklyn Defender Service.

NYPD officers walk a juvenile defendant through the front door of the Bronx Hall of Justice. Photo by Ben Fractenberg /THE CITY

Salvatore said the ability to put kids on the family court path at night would mean a lot to her clients, some of whom currently face multiple days in a row at court.

According to the first Raise the Age annual report, 67 percent of 16-year-olds charged with felonies in New York City between October 2018 and June 2019 had their initial appearance in night and weekend courts, rather than the specialized youth part created for them during the day.

More than 80 percent of all 16-year-olds were eventually removed from adult criminal court, the report said.

Patchwork justice

The legislative patch signed by Cuomo was supposed to allow district attorneys, defense attorneys and judges to agree to send teens directly off the adult criminal track to family proceedings at any hour of the day.

Lucian Chalfen, an Office of Court Administration spokesman, chalked up the lack of children being moved at night from court in Manhattan, Staten Island and Brooklyn to “prosecutorial decision.”

Ikimulisa Livingston, a Queens DA’s office spokesperson, conceded some additional night cases could have been quickly sent to family court. But, she said, other factors come into play, including whether an order of protection is sought in a case.

Justin Henry, a spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office, said there have been no teens “eligible” for removal to family court at night since September. Still, 83 percent of youths were seen at night in Manhattan Criminal Court between October 2018 and April 2019, according to OCA data obtained by THE CITY.

Brooklyn, which sent the city’s highest proportion of 16-year-olds arrested — 92 percent, according to New York State data — out of adult criminal court, hasn’t seen a single removal so far at night.

The Brooklyn DA’s office told THE CITY that five kids have been eligible for the removal to family court at night, but gave no reason as to why they weren’t transferred.

“Brooklyn is very proud to have led the way statewide in sending the most juveniles to family court since Raise the Age laws were passed,” the spokesperson, Oren Yaniv, said in a statement. “Implementing recent changes to the law remains our top priority and we will continue to work with our partners in the court system, the Department of Probation and the Law Department to navigate any minor challenges that are presented.”

A Department of Probation spokesperson told THE CITY that agency personnel have been deployed to night courts in every borough to help implement to law.

A spokesperson for the Staten Island DA’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The borough recorded the lowest number of felony arraignments of 16-year-olds in the city, according to the RTA report.

Anthony Martone, a public defender with Queens Law Associates, told THE CITY that two of his clients were recently sent straight to family court at night, lessening the burden on the youths and their families.

“The quicker we get to family court with these kids and the quicker we start services and having them interviewed I think the better off they are,” he said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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