State must ease local burden of higher youth criminal age

“There’s no doubt that society will benefit in many ways if New York state raises the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 for nonviolence offenses.

Statistics and anecdotal evidence support the concept that treating all minors as adults in the criminal justice system is unfair, cruel, costly and potentially harmful to society.

Minors who’ve been processed through the adult criminal system are more likely to reoffend upon release and become adult criminals.

About two-thirds never complete their high school educations, and their adult criminal records prevent them from obtaining employment — both factors setting them on a track to become lifetime dependents on the welfare system or sent back to prison.

It’s not being soft on crime to treat individuals who don’t have the mental capacity and maturity to take full responsibility for adult crimes. The current system is bad for all.

So there’s no doubt New York needs to join 48 other states and raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility for certain crimes to 18.

But in doing so, New York needs a plan to make the adjustment so it doesn’t overburden the Family Court and social services system, and that local taxpayers don’t wind up footing the bill for the additional costs of dealing with youthful offenders who are now being processed in the adult criminal system.

The state can’t just pass this change and expect local governments to absorb the cost without assistance.

One bill to raise the age (S4121/ A4935) blithely assumes that the cost imposed on Family Courts will be offset by the savings in the criminal courts.

But dealing with youth criminals isn’t as simple as locking them up in their own version of kiddy prison.

Youths in the Family Court system need special support services and counseling that involve the youth and the youth’s family.

In testimony last month before the state Senate Committee on Children and Families and the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections, representatives of the New York State Association of Counties expressed concerns about how the age hike would be implemented and its impact on local governments.

The change would have an impact on not just the Family Courts, but on local social services, probation, mental health and substance abuse offi ces; law enforcement; local governments and even schools, the association stated.

In addition, the counties might have to create more special court-like programs, known as Adult Diversion Programs, to deal with the new youths being processed outside the adult courts.

These needs all come at an additional cost that will have to be borne by someone, very likely local property tax payers.

Yet the governor’s offi ce, according the association, anticipates that $22 million of the $100 million county cost of the mandate won’t be reimbursed by the state.

Counties and local governments already are hard-pressed to keep taxes in line, both from the state through unfunded mandates and through the mandatory cap on property tax increases.

Unless state government fi nds a way to fund this initiative, the counties and local governments are likely to feel not only the additional burden of dealing with more trouble youths, but the burden of paying for that additional workload.

As part of raising the age of criminal responsibility to its proper level, the state Legislature and governor need to ensure that the governments tasked with meeting their new responsibilities have the resources to handle them.

Dealing with youth criminals isn’t as simple as locking them up in their own version of kiddy prison.”

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