County prepares foster-care sites for Raise the Age-affected youth

Date Published: November 27th
By:David Hill
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As New York reforms how it deals with serious crimes committed by teenagers, Oneida County has lined up 13 new places to send 16- and 17-year-olds in custody for serious crimes.

It’s a bureaucratic technicality needed to deal with a real situation: Where to send adolescent offenders who can’t go back home because of what they’ve done but who may benefit from services such as education, counseling and life skills practice.

It’s just one manifestation of New York’s move to raise the minimum age at which young people accused of crimes may be tried in criminal court. Until adopting the raise-the-age law in 2017, New York was one of only two states that allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults. North Carolina has since raised its minimum age, too.

The law previously allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults under certain circumstances. Since Oct. 1, cases in which 16-year-olds are charged may no longer be heard in regular adult criminal court, and next Oct. 1, that becomes true for 17-year-olds too.

Instead, the law set up a Youth Part of of adult criminal court for hearing serious cases involving those age 13 through 17. Felony cases involving youth are to start there. Non-violent felonies are to go to Family Court unless the relevant district attorney persuades the judge to keep the case in the Youth Part of adult court. Misdemeanors stay in Family Court.

Violent felonies can also go to Family Court if the charges do not involve the accused displaying a deadly weapon, significant physical injury or unlawful sexual conduct, and if the district attorney does not persuade the judge that extraordinary circumstances exist.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds whose cases remain in the Youth Part are to be referred to as “adolescent offenders.” They are subject to adult sentencing rules, but the judge is to take their age into account.

Carrying out the law is creating new expenses for county governments. In its first year, Oneida County expects it to cost $3.1 million and eventually $6.9 million, according to County Executive Anthony Picente. The law directs the state to reimburse counties for the added expense, but it affects counties in other ways. One is staffing. Picente budgeted, and the Legislature approved, 10 new raise-the-age-related jobs for 2019: three in the Probation Department, six in the Department of Social Services, and one in Mental Health.

In his 2019 budget address, Picente said the new court system is expected to have 30 more felony cases in this age group, with 300 cases added to the juvenile justice system overall.

Last week, Social Services Commissioner Colleen Fahy-Box briefed the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on a new task of her department: Arranging places to house youth who’ve been found guilty of a felony-level offense.

This week, the Legislature is to consider sample service purchase agreements that DSS can use to arrange placements for 16- and 17-year-olds. DSS listed 13 institutional foster care agencies approved by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services for that purpose. Costs are to be determined, as the state Office of Family and Children’s Services sets a reimbursement rate to the county based on the level of care and services the institutions provide.

The agencies are to provide institutional foster care under a state-approved model. Each youth is to have access to specialized programs to develop cognitive skills, along with academic education, vocational training and access to employment opportunities, as well as substance abuse treatment if needed.

The task of overseeing each youth’s plan through the system has and will still fall mostly to Probation, but it’s DSS that finds placements, Fahy-Box said in a separate interview. It’s been doing that for younger offenders but now will do so for 16- and 17-year-olds, some of which have been ending up in the state prison system, county jails or state-run juvenile detention facilities.

The state has added more criteria for services at foster-care institutions, in part out of recognition that many youth in the system don’t have a good home to return to and may need extra help to avoid further trouble.

“They’re not getting the services they need and what’s happening is they’re going deeper into the criminal justice system,” Fahy-Box said. “This is really an effort to identify these youth and give them a second chance.”

How many youth will need placements is unknown, but based on the number of cases in the past few years, DSS and other agencies expect about 30 more youth because of the law.

Of the 13 agencies listed, only one is in Oneida County. It’s House of the Good Shepherd in Utica. The rest are spread throughout the state, as close as Syracuse, Watertown and the Ithaca area, but as far as Bath, Binghamton, Long Island and Brooklyn. DSS can see if space is available close by, but that may not always be possible.

“I’m sure we’d always try the House of Good Shepherd first and get one of those beds. But if you couldn’t, you’d go down the list.”