New York Issues Conditional Pardon to Thousands of Youthful Offenders

Posted Jan. 6, 2016

MP3 Interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In late December, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to pardon thousands of people who were convicted of nonviolent crimes as teenagers, but have since turned their lives around. New York is one of just two states that still prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, resulting in thousands of teens receiving felony convictions that places obstacles in the way of accessing education, and/or securing jobs and housing.

Under New York's program, individuals who committed a crime while they were 16 or 17 have not been convicted of any crime for at least 10 years, who are not sex offenders and are not in arrears on their taxes, may apply for and be almost guaranteed a pardon. However, the program does not erase the felony conviction, but rather provides a certificate of rehabilitation that explains that the individual has met all the state's requirements and is in good standing in the eyes of the state of New York.

Gov. Cuomo maintains that his plan will be a reward for good behavior and provide citizens a second chance, acknowledging that when young people make a mistake, they shouldn’t have to carry that burden the rest of their lives. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, who explains why he believes this effort is an important effort that can improve the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.

MARC MAUER: Well, what we're seeing from Gov. Cuomo is really the first time that any sitting governor is doing an across-the-board pardon for people who have gotten in trouble with the law at a young age. So the proposal would recognize that many young people have made mistakes, but have since gone on to lead productive lives, yet they're still hampered in terms of the felony conviction they got at a very young age, and this has an effect on their prospects for employment, housing, other benefits of society.

What New York is doing is a recognition, first, that New York is one of two states that try all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. And so the likelihood that young people would get an adult felony conviction is obviously much greater than it is in other states. So it's a recognition that New York is out of line in this regard. But it's also a recognition that 16-, 17-year olds and even older young people do make mistakes, but they grow out of those mistakes, so there's no reason why this type of proposal couldn't be applied to 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds as well in most states around the country.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I wasn't sure how big a deal this is because this action will not take away these individuals' felony conviction, right?

MARC MAUER: What the governor's proposal would do, it doesn't delete a felony conviction from a record, but essentially gives qualifying people a certificate of rehabilitation. So, they go and apply for jobs, they go and apply to live in public housing, whatever it may be. And they have to answer yes, I do have a felony conviction, if they're asked, but at the same time they've got a letter from the State of New York that says they've met all the requirements, and essentially they've received a pardon for their behavior. So it's a way to let everyone know what the history is, but also to let relevant parties know that this person in the eyes of the State of New York has redeemed himself or herself and should be treated as any other citizen would for these purposes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marc Mauer, what kind of numbers are we talking about of people who could benefit from this?

MARC MAUER: The state's estimate is there may be as many as 10,000 people who could benefit from this policy. This goes back many years. Someone may have had a felony conviction as a 16-year-old in 1970; now they're 60 years old or something in that range. A felony conviction carries with you for the rest of your life, so the 10,000 people span a broad range of ages and in many cases, we know the conviction has continued to hurt them even many years after it took place.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Can Gov. Cuomo do this on his own and not have to go through the legislature?

MARC MAUER: Well, the governor has the authority to do this on his own, as the governor. Separately, there's been a movement in New York for a number of years now to try to raise the age of jurisdiction to 18 for trial in adult criminal court. That has not been successful to date, so I think this is a two-pronged strategy: the governor is recognizing the harm that's come in recent decades and moving forward from here I think there's some reason to believe that before too long New York may join with other states in raising the age to 18 so that actions like this from the governor would not be necessary.

BETWEEN THE LINES: For a long time, Connecticut was the third state – besides New York and North Carolina – that treated 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Connecticut raised the age to 18 a few years ago, and now Gov. Dannel Malloy wants to raise the age to 21 to be considered a juvenile offender. Can I assume you would be in favor of that?

MARC MAUER: That would be, yes, and you know it's very much in keeping with what we've seen of the research in brain science, you know, the recognition by courts that young people's brains aren't fully mature 'til they're 24, 25, so we do need to treat them differently, and there's growing recognition about that these days.

For more information, visit Sentencing Project at sentencingproject.org.

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