Youthful Offender Treatment For A Crime Can No Longer Be Waived As Part Of A Plea Bargain In New York

A decision that came down from the New York Court of Appeals has broad implications for current sentence prisoners and other young offenders who are suffering the effects of criminal convictions. In People v. Rudolph, which was decided on June 27, 2013 the Court of Appeals has put an end to a long standing practice by prosecutors of requiring criminal defendants to waive youthful offender treatment in exchange for a plea bargain and a less draconian sentence. Often young sex offenders face the choice of either going to trial and risking a lengthy prison sentence or waiving youthful offender status and facing a life of sexual offender registration and a lifetime under a cloud. This new decision has broad reaching implications for those young offenders who are currently facing criminal charges and for those who have already been convicted and waived youthful offender status as part of a plea bargain.

A youthful adjudication treatment is highly preferable because of the advantages it brings including a four-year limit on the maximum sentence that can be imposed in a felony case, the sealing of records relating to the prosecution, and the avoidance of disabilities that might otherwise result from a conviction, including disqualification from public office and public employment, avoiding providing DNA for the New York DNA database and avoiding Sexual Offender Registration.

New York Criminal Procedure Law 720.20(1) says that, where a defendant is eligible to be treated as a youthful offender, the sentencing court "must" determine whether he or she is to be so treated. The Court of Appeals affirmatively held 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. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a defendant is "eligible" for youthful offender status if he or she was younger than 19 at the time of the crime, unless the crime is one of several serious felonies excluded by the statute, or unless defendant has a prior felony conviction or has been adjudicated a youthful offender in a previous case. For some eligible youths convicted of misdemeanors, youthful offender treatment is mandatory and for all other eligible defendants, the decision of whether to grant youthful offender status is for the sentencing court.

The Court reasoned that since CPL 720.20(1) makes it mandatory that upon conviction of an eligible youth, the court must order a pre-sentence investigation of the defendant and the sentencing court must determine whether or not the eligible youth is a youthful offender, this signals a policy choice that the sentencing court make a youthful determination in every case where the defendant is eligible. The Court held that this policy controls even where the defendant fails to request youthful offender adjudication, or even if he or she agrees to forego it as part of a plea bargain.

This change in the law opens the door to a C.P.L. 440 motion to vacate criminal convictions where a youthful offender was eligible and agreed to waive youthful offender treatment. This means that those who were convicted for crimes that were committed when they were young may be eligible for shorter sentences, they may be able to have convictions vacated and even be relieved of sexual offender registration requirements.