TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Earlier this month, police reported that three youth stabbed a man near the Ithaca Commons. The process for the felony charges for the minors was a little different for police and prosecutors, as it was the first time they had to navigate new Raise the Age legislation for a serious crime in Tompkins County.
Raise the Age legislation, signed by Gov. Cuomo last year, officially took effect in New York in October. The law diverts many of the cases of 16-year-old defendants from criminal court to Family Court and applies to a variety of crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. The new law impacts several steps in the legal process, including how youth are charged, housed and rehabilitated and encompasses a comprehensive approach to raising the age of criminal responsibility for 16- and 17-year-olds. Currently, Raise the Age only affects 16-year-olds. On Oct. 1, 2019, the law will take effect for 17-year-olds.
When the bill was signed Cuomo said, “Raising the age of criminal responsibility is an essential pillar to social justice reform and critical in allowing New Yorkers the chance to reach their full potential.”
The law’s sweeping changes to the treatment of youth defendants include changes to the rules for the detention and housing of juveniles. Offenders under the age of 17 can no longer be housed in county jails. Instead, they must be detained in specialized juvenile detention facilities.
“Sixteen and 17-year-olds probably shouldn’t be in the jail,” Tompkins County Legislator Rich John said. “I think our challenges are the same as any other county around us. It’s going to work a little differently, it’s going to look a little differently.” John chairs the Public Safety Committee of Tompkins County Legislature.
Implementing the new law has posed some challenges for counties like Tompkins, budgeting being the primary concern, John said. Counties must front the costs in providing age-appropriate detention facilities. Counties will be eligible for reimbursement once they submit a “comprehensive plan to the Office of Children and Family Services and the Division of Criminal Justice Services,” according to the new law. The plan must provide a guide of the county’s anticipated Raise the Age-related costs. After the plan is submitted and approved, the counties are able to submit quarterly claims for reimbursement.
The result informed a decision by local counties to create a shared detention facility to both spread the costs equally and accommodate the few youth defendants western and upstate New York counties process.
“We’ve signed an agreement with 10 other counties,” John said. “So, we have a consortium that is going to set up a single secured supervised detention facility. And we’ll share it. We have almost no youth who are going to go to this, which is great. It doesn’t make sense to invest all the money to do a separate facility for almost no kids.”
Over the last three years, the Tompkins County Jail has accommodated 2,302 separate admissions. Of those admissions, 43 inmates were 16 or 17 years old, according to Captain Ray Bunce, administrator of the Tompkins County Jail.
Though sharing a facility with numerous other counties helps share housing costs, moving the youth to shared facilities means transporting them farther from their support system of attorneys, families, and friends.
“As for family impact of Raise the Age, if a 16- or 17-year-old needs to be jailed, then the detention center probably will not be in this county, meaning the family would have to travel more to see the youth,” Bunce said.
The closest specialized juvenile detention facility to Ithaca is the Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center in Syracuse, located about 60 miles from Ithaca.
This separation is the biggest negative impact of Raise the Age, John said.
“Taking the person out of their community makes it more difficult, more expensive, harder. I think it will also force us to look at any possible way to keep someone here without securing them if there is a way to do that safely for them and the public,” John said.
The recent law change added extra procedural layers to the stabbing case earlier this month, which involved three youth, ages 13, 15 and 16. According to police, the youth stabbed a 24-year-old Ithaca resident they had “some familiarity with” multiple times on the 100 block of North Cayuga Street. The youth were charged with gang assault and assault, both felonies.
Because two of the three youth charged were under the age of 16, neither was affected by Raise the Age. The third, however, was 16 years old, the first of violent criminal cases in Tompkins County following Raise the Age taking effect.
Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten detailed the legal process of handing the 16-year-old in accordance to Raise the Age, stating that he devised a protocol in collaboration with a Tompkins County Raise the Age task force that details procedures following crimes involving youth that are compliant with the new laws.
Van Houten said after several hours of coordinating with the probation department, county attorney’s office, local law enforcement and the courts, he was able to find the appropriate facility to house the 16-year-old defendant.
The challenge regarding the 16-year-old defendant did not stop at securing him with adequate housing. Questions as to how to properly process the defendant quickly arose. The new law specifies that “the DA can always consent to a case being transferred to Family Court.” In conjunction with this provision, Van Houten said there is a presumption that this case — or every case involving a 16-year-old — should be transferred to Family Court.
“There are three statutorily listed factors that weigh against that presumption,” Van Houten began. “One of which is use of a deadly weapon, one of which is the causing of significant physical injury to the victim and the third relates to sex offenses, which is not present. But the first two are present here in this case,” Van Houten said.
The decision to move the case to Family Court ultimately rests with Van Houten, who said he is carefully weighing the decision by looking at the defendant’s history to decide whether it is appropriate to move the case out of criminal court.
“This is a serious decision and it is one I want to make with as much information as I can,” Van Houten said, outlining how he will obtain the defendant’s school records, speak to his family, mentors and teachers to get a comprehensive view of his background.
Following the Dec. 7 incident in the case of the three youth, Van Houten has an optimistic perspective on the result of Raise the Age.
“I think that here in Tompkins County we have a belief that I think it widely held, that we should treat juveniles very carefully,” Van Houten said. “That being said, there are times when kids commit crimes that should be treated as crimes and they should be given the appropriate sanctions and should be held accountable in a way that is similar to adults who do the same thing.”
Lance Salisbury is a supervising attorney in the Tompkins and Schuyler County Assigned Counsel Programs. Salisbury said before Raise the Age, youth’s involvement in the criminal justice system created particular issues in upstate New York in rural town courts, where they may not have been equipped with the programs to properly address the issues and needs of young adult offenders.
“You ended up with 16 and 17-year-olds getting criminal convictions that have and had the potential for permanent negative impacts on their lives. Even a seemingly simple misdemeanor conviction, especially for something like petit larceny, can be a bar to getting a decent job,” Salisbury said.
According to the National Reentry Resource Center, which includes Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review among its sources of information, about 80 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks for some or all job applicants. This can drastically minimize employment opportunities for this with criminal records.
Salisbury said because Raise the Age moves many youth cases into Family Court, their records become sealed, which means their records cannot bar them from colleges, careers and the military.
Though there are challenges to work out, and difficult decisions to weigh, John said Raise the Age is a positive comprehensive approach to serving the best interest of New York’s children and youth.
“It’s been a long time coming,” John said “I think it’s a good thing.”