Local courts likely to feel effects of 'Raise the Age' law

New York's "Raise the Age" legislation will reroute 17- and 16-year-old defendants to what state officials say is a more "age appropriate" justice procedure, rather than the adult criminal courts, pictured above.

OSWEGO COUNTY — The second and final phase of the state law requiring court cases involving 16- and 17-year-old defendants be held in “age appropriate” courts went into effect this week, and local law enforcement agents are expecting an influx of juvenile cases in the probation system.

The new law comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged in recent budget talks that he wouldn’t go “through another year where we don’t do criminal justice reform.” 

“By fully implementing the second phase of ‘Raise the Age,’ 16 and now 17-year-old youth are required to receive the evidence-based services and treatment they need to prevent them from re-offending and to prepare those returning to the community to be successful and productive citizens,” Cuomo said in a Tuesday statement.

First passed in April 2017, the law will see the majority of 17 year olds facing misdemeanor and felony charges join their 16-year-old counterparts in transferring from criminal courts to the Oswego County Family Court, with the intention of providing age-appropriate, rehabilitative resources.

In the past, Family Court exclusively heard charges against children 7-15 years of age. Meanwhile, cases with defendants aged 16 and 17 were passed through the adult criminal court system before the “Raise the Age” legislation took effect.

The first phase of the legislation went into effect on Oct. 1, 2018, which moved criminal cases involving teens 16 years old to age-appropriate courts that are specially aimed at relocating and rehabilitating troubled youth. The second part of the legislation, effective this past Tuesday, included 17 year olds in the law’s newly created “Adolescent Offender” (AO) category.

AOs detained in pre-trial custody will now be held in the newly created “specialized secure juvenile detention facilities for older youth,” part of the law’s intention to raise the age at which youth are treated like adults in the criminal justice system. 

Cases involving AOs will be held in Family Court, unless they are charged with using a firearm or deadly weapon, committing a sex crime or causing “significant individual injury.” If the AO committed a non-violent felony, the District Attorney has the ability to prove “extraordinary circumstances” to keep the defendant in adult criminal court.

Following the bill’s 2017 signing, legislation required county probation offices to submit a plan articulating how they would comply with “Raise the Age” legislation — what the work volume increase would be, what state funds would be necessary to support the increase in work volume and how many cases were expected to be rerouted from the adult criminal justice procedure.

“The number is actually a little bit lower than what we anticipated,” said Oswego County Probation Department Director David Hall, speaking with The Palladium-Times in an interview Wednesday. “We are seeing more cases because we generally wouldn’t see all of the 16 and 17 year olds that go to criminal court. It just wouldn’t necessarily involve us.”

Due to national and state crime trends, local probation department officials said the most recent phase would potentially funnel more cases into Family Court and their offices, since 17-year-old defendants have higher rates of violent offenses than their 16-year-old counterparts.

“We’re monitoring how workload increases before making any changes to staffing at this point,” probation officer Shannon Perkins told county legislators at a recent public safety committee meeting.

Based on preliminary findings by the Raise the Age Task Force, the number of 16-yar-olds involved in the justice system has declined across New York state, since the first phase’s October 2018 implementation. Misdemeanor arrests of 16 year olds declined 61 percent in the first nine months of the law’s implementation from October 2017 to June 2018.

According to the task force’s August 2019 annual report, arrests of 16 and 17 year olds decreased by 60 percent across the state, and the number of youth in detention fell by 64 percent in the last six years. From October 2018 to March 2019, there was one felony and four misdemeanor petitions filed against 16 year olds in Oswego County Family Court. 

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