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:
- Be aged 14 through 18
- Have no prior felony convictions
- Have no prior felony youthful offender adjudications, and
- Have no prior juvenile delinquent adjudications for listed designated felony acts
"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:
- An A-I or A-II felony (murder),
- An armed violent felony, or
- Rape first, Criminal Sexual Act First, or Aggravated Sexual Abuse
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.