Monday, October 15, 2012

Youthful Offender - A Second Chance?

Everyone wants it.  In every case, the defendant asks his attorney, "can I get my Y-O?"  It's a common belief in the street that you get one free felony.  You get to commit any felony and still have your record sealed.

It is officially called youthful offender adjudication under Criminal Procedure Law Section 720.  What it means is that a teenager's conviction is replaced with an adjudication, the records are sealed, and they are eligible for lower sentences.  But, it is not automatically granted in any felony case. 

An eligible person for youthful offender must:
  1. Be aged 14 through 18
  2. Have no prior felony convictions
  3. Have no prior felony youthful offender adjudications, and
  4. Have no prior juvenile delinquent adjudications for listed designated felony acts 
Felonies are handled by supreme and county court judges in New York State.  It is in their sole discretion to determine who receives a youthful offender adjudication.  The standard is:

"If in the opinion of the court, the interest of justice would be served by relieving the eligible youth from the onus of a criminal record and by not imposing an indeterminate term of imprisonment of more than four years, the court may, in its discretion, find the eligible youth is a youthful offender."  C.P.L. § 720.20(1)(a).   

What does it mean to receive a Y-O?  First, the records are sealed and the defendant does not have to report any convictions for crimes on any applications for college or work.  Second, the sentencing range runs from a conditional discharge (one year unsupervised probation) to an indeterminate four years in jail.

A person is not eligible for this if the crime is:
  1. An A-I or A-II felony (murder),
  2. An armed violent felony, or
  3. Rape first, Criminal Sexual Act First, or Aggravated Sexual Abuse
As in any law, there are exceptions to these rules.  A judge can still grant a defendant youthful offender status if they are charged with an armed violent felony (violent felony committed with a gun like robbery) or the sex crimes listed if the judge finds mitigation.  Mitigation is defined in C.P.L. Section 720.10(3).  It means circumstances that bear directly on how the crime was committed or that the defendant was not the major actor. 

An example of mitigation is where two men rob a victim.  Only one of the men has a gun.  The non-gunman has a good shot of receiving Y-O.

Mitigation has nothing to do with the age of the defendant, the lack of a prior criminal record, the victim wants to see it happen, the defendant sings in his church choir or any of the other plethora of reasons given by defense attorneys.  It only has to do with how the crime was committed. 

A defendant must first plead guilty to a crime.  Then, at sentencing, the judge must place the reasons she is either granting or denying Y-O on the record for an appellate court to review.   

Do you see the problem with Y-O?  It can take a crime like robbery in the first degree or rape in the first degree, which carries a five year minimum sentence, and reduce it to a sealed record where the defendant can receive a conditional discharge?  It is ripe for abuse in the wrong cases.  Luckily, I have yet to see it misused in such a severe manner. 
Y-O can be a second chance.  Court's must wield this power wisely.  Every eligible youth who comes before it does not deserve this status for every crime.  The reverse is also true.  Court's must not summarily deny the status just because of the crime.  Each case must be analyzed separately.  The power to grant or deny this rests solely in the judge.  Neither the prosecution or defense has the power to negotiate this with each other.                             


  1. Yeah it seems like this would be best used on a case by case basis. But it is scary to think of how this could fail society in some cases--i.e. a violent offender basically being put back on the street within a few years with no criminal record to speak of.

    1. Everybody makes mistakes. especially young adults. Not everyone was fed with a silver spoon. stop be so critical and show teenagers some slack. You act as if you've never made a bad decision.

    2. everyone makes mistakes. Especially teenagers. Not everyone was fed with a silver spoon. Show the teenagers some slack. Not everyone is a criminal either. I say cut their first offense some slack. If they do it again teach the lesson that was tried to be taught the last time.

    3. Every teenager in life deserves a second chance especially if they hanging out with the wrong people

    4. Every teenager needs a second chance especially if they're hanging out with the wrong people

    5. I wish the judge had granted me this option twenty years ago when I was 18, but he denied my youthful offender status causing me a lifetime of heartache. Everything from reduced employment opportunies in general to severely diminished lifetime earnings in specific, residency restrictions on where I could live and denial of my gun rights for defense and protection. It's been twenty years and I'm proud to report I have not committed a single additional felony. I matured in my own time, and worked really hard to keep my nose clean, earn an honest living and overcome my record, despite the lifetime sentence, which I can tell you from experience is downright CRUEL to impose on a human being, let alone an adolescent.