New York is one of just two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-old youths in adult court, even for nonviolent crime. For years, juvenile justice advocates have decried this practice, arguing that it often does more harm than good. Teens’ brains, they say, are not fully formed, and youthful offenders should be given a chance at rehabilitation instead of being sent to jail.
Under a new pilot program, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent crimes such as theft, vandalism or drug possession will be able to seek alternative dispositions in a hybrid youth court.
Currently, the program is available in Nassau County, Westchester County, New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo. If it proves successful, legislators are expected to expand the program statewide.
Court Has Benefits and Drawbacks
The program works by combining the most beneficial aspects of criminal court, where adult crimes are prosecuted, and family court, which deals with New York juvenile crimes.
The court’s strategy is similar to the state’s other “problem solving” courts, in that it seeks to identify and treat the underlying cause of the crime instead of simply punishing the offense.
Youths who participate in the program will be eligible for noncriminal dispositions, including community service, anger management or chemical dependency counseling. Those who successfully complete diversion will be eligible to have the offense removed from their records.
The opportunity, though, comes at a steep price. In order to be eligible to participate in the program, youths must agree to plead guilty to the offenses charged against them. There are worries that the allure of a reduced sentence could lead youthful offenders to plead guilty when there may be grounds for acquittal.
The hybrid court may ultimately be the best option for some youthful offenders, but no one should ever plead guilty to a crime without first consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney. A good attorney can evaluate the charges and the evidence to help determine the most favorable course of action.