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NY Prisoner’s Youthful Age Considered in Modifying Prison Disciplinary Sanction

The Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court, Fourth Judicial Division, after taking into account a prisoner’s youthfulness, modified the penalty imposed in a prison disciplinary hearing.

Prisoner Paul Cookhorne was charged with violating various prison rules that included assaulting and injuring a guard. Cookhorne, who was 17 years old at the time of the violations, was found guilty at a tier III disciplinary hearing and ordered to serve four years in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) and lose four years of good time, among various other sanctions.

Cookhorne filed a “hybrid CPLR article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action” challenging the guilt determination and punishment imposed. He also sought a declaration that prison officials consider the age of 16- and 17-year-olds as a mitigating factor in all disciplinary proceedings. By order of the Erie County Supreme Court, the case was transferred to the Appellate Division.

The appellate court severed the causes of action and transferred the part seeking declaratory judgment back to the Supreme Court for further proceedings. The Appellate Division then ruled on Cookhorne’s claims seeking relief under CPLR article 78. Initially, the court found that the disciplinary report, testimony of the guard and photographic evidence constituted substantial evidence that Cookhorne had violated prison rules.

As to the punishment imposed, the appellate court held that the sanctions were “‘so disproportionate to the offense, in the light of all the circumstances, as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness.’” Taking into consideration Cookhorne’s young age at the time, all of the circumstances surrounding the incident and the New York State Department of Corrections’ disciplinary guidelines, the court concluded the maximum penalty that should have been imposed was 18 months in the SHU plus the loss of 18 months’ good time credits and loss of phone, commissary and package privileges for the same period of time.

Therefore, the Appellate Division ordered Cookhorne’s disciplinary sanction to be so modified, and wrote that nothing in its order should be construed to limit the scope of issues or relief in the declaratory judgment action pending before the lower court. See: Cookhorne v. Fischer, 960 N.Y.S.2d 798, 104 A.D.3d 1197 (N.Y. App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2013).

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