NY High Court Gives Young Offenders a Break

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) – Sentencing judges must evaluate every teenage criminal for youthful-offender treatment, even when the issue has not been raised or has been waived as part of a plea deal, New York’s highest court ruled.
     The 5-2 decision by the New York Court of Appeals overturned a three-decade-old precedent set by the court.
     “We do not make this decision lightly,” Judge Robert Smith wrote for the majority.
     The case involved a then-17-year-old defendant, Reece Rudolph, whom police arrested in 2008 with nearly 400 bags of heroin, some cocaine and $5,500 in alleged drug proceeds, in his truck and apartment.
     In a plea deal, Rudolph, of suburban Glens Falls, pleaded guilty in Warren County Court to one count of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, and was sentenced as an adult to five years in prison and two years of post-release supervision.
     Before sentencing, neither Rudolph nor his attorney asked for youthful-offender treatment, which limits felony sentences to four years for eligible teenagers and offers other advantages not afforded adult criminals.
     A court-ordered pre-sentence investigation indicated that Rudolph appeared to be eligible for youthful-offender status, but made no recommendation on whether it should be granted.
     The Warren County District Attorney’s Office said youthful-offender treatment was not part of the negotiated plea because of the severity of the crime.
     Rudolph appealed his sentence, arguing that the issue of youthful-offender status should have been addressed formally at sentencing.
     The Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department in Albany upheld the sentence in 2011, finding Rudolph had waived his right to be treated as a youthful offender by not requesting that it be considered.
     The appellate ruling cited a 1977 Court of Appeals decision, People v. McGowen, which held that if a defendant makes no motion at sentencing for youthful-offender consideration, he waives that right.
     In the present case, Rudolph then turned to the Court of Appeals, arguing the McGowen decision should be reconsidered. He cited the language of a section of criminal procedure law that says a sentencing court “must” determine whether a defendant qualifies as a youthful offender.
     The Court of Appeals agreed.
     “We hold that compliance with this statutory command cannot be dispensed with, even where defendant has failed to ask to be treated as a youthful offender, or has purported to waive his or her right to make such a request. In so holding, we overrule People v. McGowen,” Judge Smith wrote for the majority.
     Under criminal procedure law, a defendant younger than 19 at the time of his crime is eligible for youthful-offender treatment unless the crime is one of several serious felonies excluded by the statute. For misdemeanors, youthful-offender treatment is mandatory; for other crimes, it is granted at the discretion of the sentencing judge after guilt has been determined by plea or trial.
     If youthful-offender status is granted, the conviction is deemed vacated, replaced by a “finding” that carries “certain advantages,” according to Smith’s opinion. Felony sentences are limited to four years and records are sealed. Youthful offenders are not disqualified from public office and public employment, as other criminals are.
     Smith wrote of the law, CPL 720.20: “We read the Legislature’s use of the word ‘must’ in this context to reflect a policy choice that there be a youthful offender determination in every case where the defendant is eligible, even where the defendant fails to request it or agrees to forego it as part of a plea bargain.”
     Not giving eligible defendants a shot at youthful-offender status could keep them from “a fresh start, without a criminal record,” Smith wrote.
     “The judgment of a court as to which young people have a real likelihood of turning their lives around is just too valuable, both to the offender and to the community, to be sacrificed in plea bargaining,” Smith added.
     Youthful-offender treatment will not be appropriate every time, Smith said, “but the court must make the decision in every case.”
     “Our decision in McGowen, we have concluded, did not give adequate weight to the importance of a judicial decision on youthful offender treatment, and therefore McGowen is overruled. We do not make this decision lightly.”
     The court considered possible ramifications from overturning McGowen, but saw few downsides. The judges said the decision “should not allow any defendants who have pleaded guilty to withdraw their pleas.”
     Joining Smith in the opinion were Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Jenny Rivera and Sheila Abdus-Salaam.
     In a separate opinion, Judge Victoria Graffeo concurred but said a teenage defendant should be able to waive youthful-offender status as part of a negotiated plea agreement.
     “If waiver is not an option,” she wrote, “the People are less likely to offer favorable pleas in cases where they feel strongly that youthful offender treatment is inappropriate.”
     Graffeo added: “In my view, young defendants should be afforded the same plea-bargaining rights as adult offenders.”
     A dissenting opinion, written by Judge Susan Read and joined by Judge Eugene Pigott, focused on the rarity of the court overturning itself.
     “Thirty-six years ago, in People v. McGowen, a different Court of Appeals rejected the interpretation of section 720.20(1) that the majority now adopts,” Read wrote in dissent.
     “What’s changed in 36 years other than the composition of the Court of Appeals and the policy views of at least four of the judges? Nothing. Whether the 1977 court’s or the 2013 court’s reading of section 720.20(1) is ‘right’ or ‘more correct’ or ‘better’ may be debatable. It is not debatable, however, that what the court has done was, until today, essentially unheard of as an institutional matter.”
     The court sent the case back to Warren County Court to determine whether Rudolph is a youthful offender.
     Rudolph was represented by Jack Weiner of Chatham.
     The People were represented by Warren County Assistant District Attorney Emilee Davenport.

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