In Mayor Eric Adams’ telling, kids are increasingly falling prey to adults who put guns in their hands — an unintended consequence of criminal justice reforms in Albany.
As he unveiled his plan to combat an alarming and continued spike in gun violence during a City Hall speech this week, Adams warned, “far too many men above the age of 18 are victimizing children by forcing them to carry the weapons…Children are being used as pawns.” He then suggested a rollback of the state’s Raise the Age law, a hard-won piece of legislation that civil rights leaders — and Adams himself — had lobbied for for years before it was passed in 2017.
Yet while the new mayor has a burgeoning alliance with Gov. Kathy Hochul — who is looking to court many of the same voters who propelled Adams to City Hall in her gubernatorial run — rolling back Raise the Age is going to face a tough battle with liberal lawmakers in Albany.
Asked if she was considering Adams's proposal at a press conference on Tuesday, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins chuckled.
“It’s very easy for us to say, ‘Claw back this, don’t do that,’” she said. “But we can’t incarcerate ourselves out of these problems.”
State Senator Jessica Ramos said Thursday the measure had little chance of gaining traction.
“Every New Yorker and particularly in the legislature is concerned with public safety right now,” she said. “We’re having some very serious conversations, none of which include going back on all of the work that we have already done.”
Before Albany passed the current law, New York and North Carolina were the only two states in the country that automatically prosecuted 16 and 17-year-olds in adult court.
Adams argues the law should be updated to allow prosecutors to charge children in adult court if they’re arrested with guns and refuse to say who they got the weapon from. That was what was needed, “if we really want to save these children,” he said.
The stance has perplexed public defenders who say, under the existing raise-the-age statute, all felony charges brought against 16 and 17-year-olds, including gun possession, start in adult court and are only transferred to family after a judge weighs in. It’s also a divergence from the mayor’s position on the issue five years ago.
In 2017, Adams pushed for Raise the Age legislation alongside the borough presidents of Manhattan and the Bronx saying, “youth sent to adult prisons are increasingly likely to commit more serious crimes when they reoffend. Additionally, youth are far more likely to commit suicide in adult facilities as compared to youth facilities.” Adams praised state lawmakers when the bill eventually passed, according to a now-deleted press release.
Many who’ve worked alongside vulnerable youth, and were instrumental in advocating for the update, said changing the provision would be counterproductive and alarmist.
“We lived through times when young people of color were demonized and dehumanized and portrayed as super-predators and monsters,” said Rob DeLeon, the senior vice president of the Fortune Society, a prison reentry non-profit. When DeLeon was 17, he was sentenced to a decade in prison for an assault charge. “We know what happens when we get whipped into a political and media frenzy. We wind up with policies like stop-and-frisk, which didn't make us safer.”
Adams this week cited statistics showing 2.5 percent of arrests in 2019 involved people under the age of 18 with guns. In 2021 that rate was 10 percent, the mayor said. Asked for the underlying data behind those statistics, the mayor’s office provided NYPD figures showing the number of arrests of youth under 18 overall had dropped from 10,276 in 2019 down to 4,800 in 2021. During that time, however, the raw number of underage gun arrests increased from 257 to 469, though that still represented less than ten percent of arrests of minors, overall.
The proposal was part of a sweeping package of police and community responses to gun violence Adams laid out earlier this week. The mayor, who campaigned on a platform of tamping down gun violence, had been under increasing pressure to lay out his vision to do so. That pressure culminated Friday night when two officers were shot and killed while responding to a domestic dispute between a mother and her son in Harlem.
But critics of Adams's plan, many of whom are further to the left on the political spectrum, have warned against resorting to regressive policies that would rewind years of legislative wins for members of his own party.
“We'll hear them out, but there's a reason these changes were necessary to begin with," Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris told WNYC/Gothamist earlier this week. "The last thing we want to do is go backwards.”
Studies of states and jurisdictions that diverted 16 and 17-year-olds away from criminal court and into family courts across the country, have consistently shown a reduction in recidivism and savings to taxpayers. Since it’s phase-in, which began in in 2018, advocates say the law in New York has been a success. In its first two years, youth arrests and detentions dropped. The number of shootings across the city sunk to record lows that year and the year after.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that shootings began a dramatic spike, after COVID-19 had ravaged the city and upended normal life. There were 1,531 shootings in 2020, twice as many as the year before. Last year there were even more; the NYPD said 1,561 shootings took place in 2021.
“It was really not until the kids became untethered from the systems that were available to support them that we really started to see the numbers go up,” said Nancy Ginsburg, the Director of the Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project at the Legal Aid Society. Some of the kids Ginsburg represents are pressured to carry guns by older members of crews and they’re trying to fit in, she said. Others carry guns because they’re being bullied and are trying to protect themselves.
“Many of these kids we're seeing, once they're connected to pro-social activities and supports, are perfectly happy to turn away from it,” Ginsburg said. Family court offers that type of support and supervision she said — things like special school placements with mental health and substance abuse counseling built in, counseling for families, and escalating consequences if kids aren’t adhering to court-prescribed programs.
“It's not like they just go there and a judge yells at them and they go home,” Ginsburg said. “They're just not facing sentences that were created for adults in a system that was created for adults.”
Statistics show that teens can and still are charged as adults under the existing Raise the Age law, in the case of violent felony offenses. All felony cases involving 16 and 17-year-olds start out in adult court and have to be transferred over to family court by a judge. Between October 2019 and September 2020, 17 percent of 16-year-olds and 26 percent of 17-year-olds charged with a felony were still tried in adult criminal court, according to data analyzed by the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.
Criminal possession of a firearm is a felony offense, meaning 16 and 17-year-olds can still be charged as adults under the existing statute.
Others questioned whether the mayor’s proposal to force cooperation in exchange for leniency was even constitutional
“That is a total undermining of young people's constitutional rights,” said Kate Rubin, with Youth Represent, which provides legal services to minors. “The idea that a young person would be punished for exercising their constitutional right not to share information with a police officer ... it kind of undermines every basic right the system is supposed to be built on.”
It’s not clear exactly when Adams's concern about the Raise the Age law began. He didn’t mention it much on the campaign trail last year, though he did talk about the “unintended consequences,” the law might have had at a joint appearance with former Governor Andrew Cuomo last summer after his primary victory. His Republican rival Curtis Sliwa had called for changes to the law, as had the New York Post Editorial Board, which asked Adams to include reforming it as part of his public safety plan last November.
Adams brought up his concerns about the law in passing when a police officer was shot in the Bronx by a 16-year-old earlier this month, though he didn’t fully articulate his position until Monday.
DeLeon of Fortune Society — who said he started peddling crack at 12 when he was growing up in Williamsburg in the 1980’s and 1990’s — said he believed that Adams’s plan will backfire. As a kid, even when he got beat up by police officers inside a precinct, DeLeon refused to say where he’d gotten the drugs. It was a question of survival.
“If I'm labeled a snitch, my chances of survival are slimmer,” DeLeon said. “It doesn't make sense to punish young people for that. We've got to do a better job of uncovering the sources of these illicit substances and these weapons.”