(Buffalo, N.Y.) – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill April 10 that raises the age a person charged with a crime can be tried as an adult from 16 to 18 years old.
The new law was part of a “Raise the Age” initiative that has seen support in recent years.
New York is the second to last state to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; North Carolina is the only remaining state that has not.
The issue received a lot of media attention after Khalief Browder, who was arrested in 2010 at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, committed suicide in 2015.
A recent Spike TV documentary produced by Jay-Z details Browder’s story, including the three years he spent in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail before his death at the age of 22.
Since his death, his brother Akeem Browder had lobbied to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
“Your brother did not die in vain,” Cuomo told Akeem Browder, at the bill signing. “Your brother died to make a social change, and he has.”
Buffalo State University Police Chief Peter Carey, who also teaches in the Criminal Justice department, appeared on the Buffalo Review April 17 to discuss the change.
“There are different aspects of (the bill) as far as law enforcement and the court system” said Carey. “We also have the youthful offender status; a judge can decline a juvenile defender, a youth offender and have the case sealed. We had a law that was at the discretion of the judge and district attorney…now we take it a step further.”
Carey said media attention of the issue likely lead to change.
“What I think what these incidents do is that they inspire the public to put pressure on their legislators to make that change to the law. When there is an incident that raises public concern, then it puts the concern to the legislator,” said Carey.
Advocates of the change say it will reduce recidivism, lower the costs of holding teens charged as adults and will allow 16 and 17 year olds to learn from mistakes, rather than see jail time in adult prisons.
“Raising the age was more about not mixing adults with youth. Young people who are really making mistakes, their minds are not truly developed,” said Pastor James Giles, president of Voice Buffalo, a group that advocated for the change.
“They don’t know what it is that they’re doing and they’re being criminalized, in some cases for the rest of their life,” he said.
Giles said it’s important to keep those young people who commit crimes away from older more hardened criminals.
However, the change has been a polarizing topic with some staunchly opposed to the move.
Carey said law enforcement has some concerns about how teens who commit violent felony crimes will now be treated by the courts.
Some have also expressed concern that there could be an increase in violent crime by 16 and 17 year olds, now that there is a decrease in them being charged in criminal court.
“You now have gang members and drug dealers that are using those under the age of 16
because they won’t suffer the criminal responsibility. They will now use those who are 16 or 17, depending on the incidents we specify in the law. You now expose a broader pool of younger people to be used in criminal activity,” said Carey.
However, Giles said gangs are already using young people for violent crime.
“Ideally it’s designed to get those younger groups some help and service, so even if somebody is doing that, we still want to help that young person and get them into some more positive pursuits. Criminalizing them and putting them into adult prison is not the way that is going to help them,” said Giles.
* Cheich Toure and Joseph Kasko contributed to this report.