Passing Raise the Age Legislation: A Big Step on the Long Road to Implementation

Friday, June 30, 2017

Passing Raise the Age Legislation: A Big Step on the Long Road to Implementation
By Jennifer March, Executive Director, Citizens’ Committee for Children and Naomi Post, Executive Director, Children’s Defense Fund-NY 

On April 10, 2017, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in New York State.  

And with the Raise the Age legislative victory, the lives of thousands of youth in the state will be improved in dramatic ways. Two major questions come to mind here: How did we achieve this victory, particularly after multiple years of promising, yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts? And two, how do we ensure that the law gets implemented well?

To answer this first question, this tremendous and long-fought victory was the culmination of efforts by many across the state who spent many years working towards this common goal. This included Raise the Age-NY Campaign efforts supported by philanthropy to: 

  • Provide content and policy expertise as staff analyzed bills, drafted summaries and talking points, and disseminated key facts to broad stakeholders;  
  • Offer government relations advice on in-district and in-Albany meetings with legislators, coordinate large scale advocacy days for a wide range of campaign members from across the state, and maintain a constant presence in Albany with the Governor and Legislative offices; 
  • Achieve significant media and social media visibility in counties throughout the state and in Albany through print, TV and radio, as well social media outlets including Facebook and Twitter. 
  • Mobilize thousands of New Yorkers from all over the state through online advocacy opportunities and calls to action, as well as support buses and train fare to help faith leaders, youth, families, providers, advocates, legal organizations, and citizens from all walks of life get to Albany to make their voices heard. 

Here’s what else moved the needle:

  1. Diversity of support:
    The growing size, diversity and unwavering commitment of the Raise the Age-NY Campaign gave the issue of raising the age sticking power – we were not going away.  Having laid the groundwork for legislative leaders through multiple years of educational efforts, and having ensured raising the age was part of the public discourse via voluminous media and social media presence, the Governor and key legislative leaders came forward this year and committed to include Raise the Age legislation in the state’s adopted budget in April 2017.  
  2. Youth Voices:
    The Raise the Age-NY Campaign underscored the fact that research clearly demonstrates that adolescents are both capable of impulsive behavior, as well as receptive to rehabilitative services. Research documenting that when juveniles are treated as adults, they are more likely to recidivate and that placing youth in adult facilities increases their likelihood of being physically or sexually abused, was also shared widely. But most importantly, we helped amplify the voices of impacted youth and their families to tell their own stories of how the current system negatively impacted their lives.  These voices were integral to the Campaign’s education, messaging, advocacy and media efforts.
  3. Advocacy:
    The Raise the Age-NY Campaign effectively leveraged all its advocacy tools  - media, social media, calls, letters, emails, rallies, and meetings with elected officials -  to hold legislators and the Governor to their commitment; underscoring that in our view, there could be no budget without Raise the Age.

So what’s next?

While it is clear that the law is one the strongest approaches to raising the age of criminal responsibility in the country and that it will benefit tens of thousands of New York youth, the law is not perfect and there is in fact more work to do.  In the months and years ahead, the Raise the Age-NY campaign members will weigh in as part of the planning phase, identify and advocate for county-level resources, and monitor implementation of the law, paying close attention to the achievement of critical deadlines as well as youth outcomes.  We will also have the opportunity to develop legislative, budget and programmatic strategies to positively impact outcomes for youth who will continue to be charged as adults such as advancing reforms of sentencing guidelines, record sealing, and ensuring youth in any and all facilities get appropriate care and services. 

In sum, enacting Raise the Age into law is a lesson in persistent, effective advocacy and this herculean effort must be built upon. The ability of the Raise the Age-NY campaign to leverage content expertise to disseminate analysis, talking points and fact sheets widely; to support and build a statewide groundswell of support to raise the age; to provide persistent media attention and social media visibility to engage New Yorkers; and to connect campaign members and New Yorkers to their elected leaders through easy to use email and phone call tools, as well as through logistical support for meetings with legislators in Albany and throughout the state for multiple years, made all the difference. None of this would have been possible without the unwavering engagement of the campaigns diverse membership, New Yorkers at large, as well as the critical support of our Raise the Age-NY philanthropic partners.  Together, in the months and years ahead, we look forward to ensuring that all youth touched by the juvenile and criminal justice systems receive what they need to be supported, protected and placed on a trajectory for future success.

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