Justice for Juveniles

This fall, the Honorable Edwina G. Mendelson (Ph.D. ’02, Criminal Justice), the deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives in New York state, oversaw the court system’s citywide and co-led its statewide rollout of one of the most important pieces of legislation in New York’s recent history: the Raise the Age law.
Judge Edwina Mendelson standing in her robe
Before October, New York was one of just two states that automatically treated all 16-year-olds as adults when they were charged with crimes. (The other was North Carolina, which has also since revised its law.) Thanks to Raise the Age, the cases of most 16-year-olds who are charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies will now be addressed in the Family Court juvenile justice system, as opposed to the adult criminal justice system. Next October, individuals who are 17 years old at the time of their alleged crimes will receive the same protections.
 
Mendelson, who has spent her entire career working at the intersection of families and the criminal justice system, sees Raise the Age as a critical step forward. “With this new law, rehabilitation is the primary goal,” she says. Even juveniles who are charged with violent crimes — and therefore will remain in the adult criminal justice system — will have their cases presided over by specially trained Family Court judges, Mendelson adds. “These judges have been trained — in areas including juvenile justice, adolescent development, custody and care of youth, and effective treatment methods for reducing unlawful conduct of youth — to intervene in the lives of young people in a way that can help them have future law-abiding lives, thereby also fostering community safety.”
 
Mendelson has a long history working within the Family Court system. Early in her career as a lawyer, she represented children and parents in New York County Family Court. She was first appointed to the bench as a Family Court judge in 2003, and served as a trial judge for five years. She later served as the supervising judge of the Queens County Family Court and as administrative judge in charge of all the Family Courts in the five boroughs of New York City. In 2017, she was appointed to her current post.
 
“Family Court is the type of court where we address many of society’s ills,” she says. “Seeking social justice has always been important to me, and it’s why I decided to attend the Urban Legal Studies Program at City College and CUNY School of Law, whose motto is ‘Law in the Service of Human Needs.’” Mendelson was already a practicing lawyer ¾ and spending many of her days in court — when she enrolled in The Graduate Center’s criminal justice Ph.D. program, which she says gave her the background for her current position. “There’s no doubt that I would not have been qualified to help our court system and to lead our implementation of Raise the Age if not for what I learned at The Graduate Center,” she says.
 
“I am in awe of Judge Mendelson’s role in reconciling the priorities of punishment and protection in her administration of the family court,” says Professor Carla Shedd (Sociology, Urban Education), who has researched Mendelson’s impact on court processes and outcomes in New York City. “She is tasked with overhauling one of the most important institutions in our state, toward the goal of directing more young people toward systems of formation — schools — rather than systems of reformation — jails and prisons.”
 
With her three CUNY degrees, Mendelson credits the university system for all stages of her professional development. “The education I received has enabled me to do work that I love ¾ to try to make our justice system more fair and make the world a better place,” she says.
 

Submitted on: NOV 14, 2018

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