Criminal Justice Reform Is Not for the Short-Winded: How the Judiciary's Proactive Pursuit of Justice Helped Achieve "Raise the Age" Reform in New York

By Lippman, Jonathan | Fordham Urban Law Journal, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Criminal Justice Reform Is Not for the Short-Winded: How the Judiciary's Proactive Pursuit of Justice Helped Achieve "Raise the Age" Reform in New York


Lippman, Jonathan, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Introduction                                            242 I. Background of Juvenile Criminal Responsibility in    New York                                             245   A. Family Court Act of 1962 and the Broken Promise    245   B. New York Lags Behind the Evolving Science      and Law                                            248 II. New Yorkers Paid a Heavy Price for the     Tentative Decision                                  250   A. Juveniles of Color Bear the Brunt of      the Consequences                                   251   B. Adult Jails and Prisons Were Breeding Grounds      for Abuse and Future Criminality                   252   C. A Poor Investment for Taxpayers                    256 III. The Judiciary's Push to Raise the Age in New York  258   A. The Judiciary as the Laboratory for Reform:      Bringing the Issue to the Spotlight                258   B. Laying the Foundation to Achieve Reform            263   C. The Youth Court Act is Born                        265     1. A Bold, Yet Sensible, Proposal to        Achieve Reform                                   266     2. Building a Base of Support                       268   D. Difficulties Encountered                           270   E. Reaping What You Sow: The Momentum Builds and      Cuomo Acts                                         273   F. New York Raises the Age                            277 Conclusion                                              280 

INTRODUCTION

This past April of 2017, after years of debate, the New York State Legislature passed a comprehensive reform bill raising the age of criminal responsibility from sixteen to eighteen. (1) New York became the forty-ninth state to raise the age of criminal responsibility above the age of sixteen. (2) When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law, New York finally fulfilled a more than fifty-year-old promise made by the State Legislature in 1962. (3) At that time, a divided Legislature decided to keep the age of criminal responsibility at sixteen, but promised that this was "tentative" and subject to change upon the completion of a study of the impact of the new court and related laws. (4) Although the study was completed, no bill was ever introduced and the "tentative" decision remained for the next five decades.

The battle to raise the age in New York was a long and arduous one, filled with many obstacles and lessons. To paraphrase Justice Vanderbilt's famous aphorism, criminal justice reform is not a sport for the short-winded, (5) and neither was the fight to keep sixteen- and seventeen-year-old children out of the adult criminal justice system.

Notably, the push that finally achieved reform this past April was ignited by what many would consider to be an unexpected source--the State Judiciary. This advocacy would seem to be at odds with Chief Justice Roberts's judicial philosophy. During his confirmation hearing in 2005, he described the job of a judge as being akin to an umpire who must only "call balls and strikes and not [] pitch or bat." (6) There is much wisdom to Chief Justice Roberts's analogy. Judges should not be "judicial activists" and should not arrive at legal conclusions based on their personal agendas or biases. In other words, judges should not be divorced from the rules of the game--rules that are framed by the legislative and constitutional constraints of our tri-partite system of government.

But that does not mean that state judiciaries, particularly Chief Justices (7)--the stewards of the justice system in their respective states--should simply sit idly, treating citizens as faceless numbers on the crowded court docket. At a time when many Americans lack confidence in the criminal justice system (8) and access to justice is unfortunately largely driven by wealth, (9) state judiciaries should be proactive in the pursuit of equal justice. In the complex world of today, the modern Judiciary must ensure that justice is really and truly being done. …

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