New York is one of two states that treat 16- and 17-year-old offenders the same way that they treat adult criminals. As a result, these teens are saddled with criminal records, which can make it harder for them to get jobs later in life, even if they've stayed out of trouble since their initial offense.
But these ex-offenders now have a chance to restore their reputations, somewhat. Governor Andrew Cuomo says that he will conditionally pardon people who committed a misdemeanor or non-violent felony when they were 16 or 17 and have had no other convictions in the 10 years since.
Cuomo expects to work his way through an initial influx of about 10,000 pardon applicants, his office says, and 350 applicants a year afterward.
The pardons won't eliminate the convictions from a person's record, which means that the crimes will still turn up during background checks, says KaeLyn Rich, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union's Genesee Valley chapter. But the pardons show that a person has lived crime-free since, she says, and essentially vouch for them.
"It's definitely not a panacea or a way to end discrimination against people with prior convictions," she says, "but it's a step in the right direction."
Long term, Cuomo and a coalition of legislators, elected officials, youth agencies, and advocacy groups want state law changed so that 16- and 17-year-olds are not treated as adult offenders. Research shows that many offenders that age make poor choices, but won't reoffend if they face appropriate — not excessive — consequences, says Elaine Spaull, executive director of the Center for Youth, one of the coalition's member agencies.
Cuomo is using the pardon plan to renew his Raise the Age push. He wants the Legislature, which returns to Albany in January, to approve a package of reforms that would stop the criminal justice system from treating 16 and 17 year-olds as adults. The package also includes provisions to seal "crimes committed at a young age after a person has remained crime free for a period of time," a press release says.
The Legislature failed to pass Raise the Age legislation last year.
Cuomo signed an executive order last week to separate 16- and 17-year-old offenders from the adult population in state prisons. The state is converting the medium-security Hudson Correctional Facility near Albany into a juvenile detention center for 16 and 17 year olds. The state will begin transferring male youths in minimum- and medium-security prisons and all female youth offenders starting in August.
The facility will provide treatment, services, and work programs geared specifically toward 16 and 17 year olds.