Counties race to comply with juvenile reform

Date Published: December 16th 2018
By: Joe Mahoney

ALBANY — Counties across New York are making plans to expand their probation departments as a result of the state’s Raise the Age initiative designed to keep youth out of adult prisons and jails.

“Many counties are going to have to hire probation officers,” said Mark LaVigne, spokesman for the New York State Association of Counties, pointing to the law’s emphasis on providing mental health counseling and foster care services to troubled teens covered by the law.

Starting Oct. 1, judges could no longer order children who are not yet 17 to be held in jails with adult offenders. The second phase of the law will kick in next Oct. 1, when 17-year-olds at that time will also be steered away from jails and prisons that hold older inmates.

The new law requires the state to reimburse the counties for all costs arising from the program, provided that the county is within the property tax cap — or, if it has exceeded the tax cap, can demonstrate that it has experienced a financial hardship.

But while the first phase of the law is underway, many counties have not yet had their financial plans for Raise the Age approved, LaVigne pointed out.

“You can’t get reimbursed until your plans have been submitted and approved,” he added,. “The state and the counties are still working through the specifics of their plans.”

The law has created new responsibilities for sheriffs, county prosecutors and judges. Counties are also facing potentially higher demands for social welfare services, mental health counseling and substance abuse programs for those directed into foster care. The law sets the age of criminal responsibility in New York at 18 years old.

Some lawmakers are asking whether the state and counties are poised to deliver on the promises that came with Raise the Age. They say they hope that the goal of improving outcomes for what bureaucrats call “justice-involved youth” is achieved.

At a Dec. 11 hearing in Albany, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Rockland County, chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Children and Families, emphasized the importance of adequate counseling opportunities for children, whether they have had brushes with the law or not.

“Frankly, I think we ought to provide more psychological assistance in every elementary, middle school and high school for every child, so they at least have that opportunity of not going down this road” leading to the court system, Jaffee stated.

In recent years, the state has expanded community-based services for youth needing mental health counseling, said Donna Bradbury, associate commissioner for the state Office of Mental Health.

“School-based clinics have experienced the most growth of all,” she said. She said her agency is convinced that “children are best serviced in the community and not in hospitals.”

The rollout of the new requirements has gotten a mixed reception in the counties.

Allegany County District Attorney Keith Slep made headlines in his local newspaper, the Wellsville Daily Reporter, Dec. 12 after he branded the new law a “boondoggle” at a meeting of his county’s public safety committee. The prosecutor contended the statute is creating “a lot of nonsense work” at the county level.

Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, told CNHI that state agencies are providing guidance to the counties with a view towards helping them achieve the goals of the new law.

“There is always a learning curve with new laws and Raise the Age requires changes to decades-long practices,” Kava said. “These changes, however, provide the opportunity to help youth succeed, rather than exposing them to the adult criminal justice system and jail, or prison.”

Alex Wilson, counsel for the New York Sheriffs’ Association, said there had been “a few hiccups” at the time of the Oct. 1 launch, when 16-year-olds could no longer be jailed with adult prisoners.

Since then, Wilson added, “Some of these kids aren’t being held as close to the arresting agency as they would like, but we haven’t heard of any more substantial complaints as of yet.”

One of the leading advocates for increasing the age of criminal responsibility, Paige Pierce, director of the nonprofit Families Together in New York State, said safeguards in the new law ensure that communities are protected from juveniles with a record of violence.

“This particular law has more insulation and more protection for public safety than many people feel is really necessary,” Pierce said. “It goes above and beyond to make sure that every kid who commits a felony initially doesn’t go to Family Court. It initially goes to the adult court and has to be waived down to the Family Court.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.

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