Impact Of ‘Raise The Age’ Proposal Unclear Locally

Many state legislators agree juveniles who commit crimes shouldn’t be housed with adult inmates and that troubled youth should get counseling.

But there’s division over specifics to a proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the current practice puts young teenagers in a prison system where they’re likely to be assaulted, injured, re-arrested and re-incarcerated. Proposals by Democrats and Republicans have sparked differences and verbal exchanges, and it’s one of a few issues that led to a looming government shutdown. Issues remain to be resolved over what crimes constitute intervention and rehab and what ones should continue to go through adult criminal court.

While several local officials see validity to the proposal, many unknowns and concerns surround costs and what kind of state aid — if any — would be available. County Executive Vince Horrigan said they don’t fully know what the additional cost to the taxpayer would be.

Under the proposal, 16- and 17-year-olds who require detention would no longer be housed in the Chautauqua County Jail. That means they’d be transferred to a juvenile facility, and Horrigan said they don’t know where that would be.

“There’s personnel costs. There’s transportation costs,” he said. “We have asked our legislators to do everything they can to get state assistance if it does pass.”

A Senate Finance report shows an estimated fiscal impact of $155 million in 2019 and $396.6 million in 2020. The governor’s proposal, if enacted, would make local governments responsible for 50 percent of the costs.

In Chautauqua County, roughly 200 cases are in the 16 to 18 age group. Tom Narraway, county probation director, said the concept makes sense due to the fact 16- and 17-year-olds brains’ don’t fully develop until 25. Narraway said there’s different services and programming that are appropriate for the age group.

“When you try to fit them into an adult funnel, it doesn’t necessarily work well,” he said. “I think almost everybody agrees it’s the right thing to do.”

Narraway said such cases will be pushed through the probation department to develop plans and programming for individuals to mitigate problems. Narraway said the department will see increased work volume as a result.

Sheriff Joe Gerace said he has serious reservations about the proposal between the way it’s being carried out in Albany and the fiscal implications to local government. Gerace said the state’s talked about building additional facilities for inmates, but there’s no guarantee they will ever build them.

“They haven’t done anything with the current shortfall of housing for 14- and 15-year-olds,” Gerace said. “This could be a huge cost to us to move this 16- to 18-year-old age group to facilities across the state. If this effects Erie County and the other counties, there won’t be adequate facilities. There aren’t adequate facilities today.”

Gerace said there are safeguards in place, depending on severity of the case, between youthful offender status, diversion programs and sealed records to prevent them from having a lifelong criminal record. Ultimately, Gerace said the proposal could hamper the ability to solve crimes in some cases.

“The system is different with youth,” he said. “You have to immediately notify a parent or guardian the location of the offender. You can’t question them without a parent or guardian. Obviously, they aren’t going speak with us in front of mom or dad. There will be significant issues.”

While New York is one of two states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds, District Attorney Patrick Swanson said they are treated differently than older age groups. Swanson said roughly 3 percent of those 16 and 17 end up with a criminal record when they go through the criminal system.

“Most DA’s offices if not all are making it an effort not to criminalize these individuals,” Swanson said. “We’re working with defense lawyers and programs so that these people aren’t criminalized and aren’t put in prison. Very rarely are we sending them to prison or jail.”

The proposal as it stands would move cases into Family Court. That means the County Attorney’s Office would be handling cases instead of the District Attorney’s Office.

Swanson said the rules are substantially different in Family Court. Records are also sealed, leaving prosecutors with no idea what an 18-year-old’s criminal past was, for example.

The state District Attorneys Association and the New York State Sheriffs’ Association came out against the proposal.

Public Defender Ned Barone says he’s in favor of raising the age. By making the move, Barone said young kids have the opportunity for a second chance.

“Typically, juveniles are never held unless it’s a serious offense,” Barone said. “They’re typically released and then they’re dealt with through the probation department and Family Court, which opens doors immediately to programs they may find useful. Those doors open immediately, whereas the criminal justice system you won’t find that.”

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