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Common Justice 2024 Legislative Priority Spotlight: The Youth Justice & Opportunities Act

By Alice Hamblett on May, 7 2024

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Black and brown youth across New York State are disproportionately policed, arrested, and incarcerated. In addition to causing trauma and exposure to violence, the criminal legal system can prevent young people from moving forward by saddling them with conviction records, the ripple effects of which are socially and economically devastating. The Youth Justice & Opportunities (YJ & O) Act, S.3426 (Myrie)/A.4238 (O’Donnell), expands the reach of record sealing and opportunities for alternatives to incarceration so that more youth, especially youth of color, can successfully build their futures. If passed and signed into law, this legislation will open doors for young New Yorkers, reduce racial inequality, and improve public safety.  

In New York State, youth between the ages of 14 and 19 can qualify for youthful offender (YO) adjudication, which results in automatic record sealing. However, this system is limited. For example, youth can only receive YO adjudication until they turn 19, despite a large body of research demonstrating that youths’ brains do not fully mature until age 25.  In addition, YO adjudication is mandatory only in certain cases and judges have limited discretion in granting it. 

The YJ & O Act rigorously addresses these limitations. Specifically, it creates Young Adult (YA) adjudication for those ages 19-25, known as ‘emerging adults,’ and makes YO and YA adjudication mandatory for certain cases. This legislation also gives judges more discretion to grant YO and YA adjudication, to grant YO and YA adjudication to an individual more than once, to sentence youth to alternatives to incarceration, and to waive surcharges and fees for youth. Ultimately, the YJ & O Act would reduce the collateral consequences of criminal legal system involvement for more youth across New York State.  

As a restorative justice program that addresses serious violent felonies in adult courts, Common Justice believes in recognizing individuals’ capacity to grow and change over time. The YJ & O Act does just that. All Common Justice participants who have caused harm, also known as responsible parties, were between 16 and 26 at their time of arrest. We know firsthand that these emerging adults deserve the opportunity to become more than the worst thing they have ever done. We have also witnessed the incredible success young people achieve when they can resolve their cases in their communities and pursue employment and education without the burden of a conviction record. 

The YJ & O Act would allow many more of our responsible parties to start their next chapters unencumbered by their criminal legal system histories.  In addition, many people who have caused harm or who otherwise find themselves enmeshed in the criminal legal system have complex histories of trauma. Many of Common Justice’s responsible parties have been harmed at some point in their lives. The YJ & O Act allows judges to carefully consider such mitigating factors when considering YO or YA adjudication and options for alternatives to incarceration.  

Common Justice also supports the YJ & O Act because it will reduce racial inequality in New York State’s criminal legal system. As described in a 2020 report by Youth Represent and the Children’s Defense Fund New York, “in 2018, only 16% of youth 15 to 24 in New York were Black, but Black youth accounted for 42% of those arrested and 55% of those sentenced to prison in New York State.” This is, unfortunately, unsurprising as, far too often, Black youth face criminalization for typical adolescent behavior via racist overpolicing and the school-to-prison pipeline. Youth of color seldom receive a first chance, let alone a second. At a key inflection point in many of their futures, the YJ & O Act will help to ensure that youth of color in New York State can break free from cycles of criminalization.  

Finally, at Common Justice, we know that the YJ & O Act will promote safety. According to research by the Brennan Center for Justice, in New York State, “felony convictions reduce a person’s annual earnings by around 20 percent, and misdemeanors by around 15 percent.” One of the four core drivers of violence is a diminished ability to meet one’s economic needs. We cannot expect to break cycles of violence by putting up barriers to young people’s socioeconomic success. In addition, recent research demonstrates that youth alternative to incarceration models, such as restorative justice programs, credible messenger programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy, produce better public safety outcomes than incarceration. The YJ & O Act will undoubtedly make New York State safer.  

Black and brown youth across New York State have borne the brunt of policing and incarceration for far too long. They deserve every opportunity to be treated as youth so that, as adults, they may thrive. The YJ & O Act presents a clear opportunity for lawmakers in Albany to improve young people’s futures, reduce racial inequality, and promote public safety. Common Justice implores the New York State Legislature and Governor Hochul to give New York State’s criminal legal system-involved youth the chance they deserve.    

Visit this link to learn more about the Youth Justice & Opportunities Act.  

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