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Criminal justice reform in New York: Is it finally time for a change?

The New York General Assembly is considering a dozen criminal justice reform bills. The provision considered most likely to pass is one that would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Currently, New York is one of two states (the other is North Carolina) in which youths as young as 16 are charged as adults.

The age of responsibility was set more than one hundred years ago, when 16- and 17-year-olds were living more like adults, often holding down jobs and sometimes even raising families. More recently, psychological studies show that minors’ brains are not fully-developed, and most people recognize that 16- and 17-year-olds really are not adults.

The issue of whether to continue charging older minors as adults has been debated for years, but hasn’t gained momentum until recently, amid several long-awaited legislative victories. Reform measures that would treat 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles are expected to be given priority in 2017.

Raising the age of responsibility would require minors to appear in adolescent or family court, rather than criminal court.

To enact the proposed measure, the state plans to assign additional judges to the family court system. Since the state already made provision for this in previous years, the current budget is expected to cover the additional costs.

While skeptics cite concerns about increased fiscal requirements associated with implementing the proposed legislation, proponents point out that reducing the number of adult incarcerations will minimize the financial burden on the justice system. They also believe the proposed reforms will assist law enforcement in handling criminal cases.

Additionally, supporters point to public safety concerns, noting that minors housed in correctional facilities alongside adults are exposed to volatile and often violent conditions that make them more likely to re-offend once they’re released.

Placing them in the juvenile justice system, on the other hand, will ensure they have access to social services and support to address the underlying factors that influence their behavior. Thus, they’ll be less likely to wind up in the justice system again as adults.

Another stipulation included in the proposed reforms would make it easier for those accused of a crime to post bail.

Other measures are designed to improve transparency for grand juries and modify current sentencing procedures.

Though some debate continues, many state lawmakers seem optimistic that the reform packages will pass.

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