State's Highest Court Overrules Precedent on Sentencing for Minors

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In 2008, a 17-year-old named Reece Rudolph was arrested after Glens Falls police found more than 300 bags of heroin in his apartment and his vehicle. Rudolph pleaded guilty to one count of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree.

As part of the plea deal, he was sentenced as an adult and received a five-year prison term. His lawyer did not ask that Rudolph be treated as a "youthful offender," a classification that offers defendants 19 years old or younger certain benefits, including a four-year cap on felony prison sentences and a clean criminal record.

In 2011, following Rudolph's appeal, an Albany appeals court affirmed the original sentence, citing a 1977 New York State Court of Appeals decision that a defendants waives his right to be considered a youthful offender if he files no motion for it at the sentencing hearing.

Last week, though, the Court of Appeals reversed that precedent, ruling that judges must at least consider youthful-offender treatment for convicted minors even if the defense attorney makes no such request.

"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," Judge Robert Smith wrote in the 5-2 majority opinion.

Not all minors are eligible for youthful-offender treatment. Those convicted of Class I and II felonies--such as murder, sexual assault, and first-degree narcotic sales--are ineligible. So are those with a prior felony on their record, as well as defendants who have received first-offender treatment in the past.

At the time of the plea deal, the Warren County prosecutor stated that the D.A.'s Office "cannot extend YO as part of this offer" and that "we can eliminate YO as part of the plea bargain," because the crime was too serious. Criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, however, did not disqualify Rudolph from the classification.

Yet Rudolph's attorney did not make a motion for youthful offender treatment at the sentencing, which meant that, based on the 1977 ruling in People v. McGowen, Rudolph had officially waived his right to the treatment.

Youthful-offender treatment is mandatory for misdemeanor offenders. For eligible felony offenders, it is up to the discretion of the sentencing judge. If the status is granted, the conviction is "vacated" and replaced by a "youthful offender finding." Records of the arrest, court proceedings, and conviction are sealed. And the defendant is still allowed to run for public office, work in the public sector, or any of the other things that ex-cons cannot.

The five judges making up the majority agreed that the impact of the treatment is too great to close the door on any eligible convicted minor.

"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," wrote Smith. "In so holding, we overrule People v. McGowen."




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