ALBANY -- New York's effort to shift young lawbreakers from adult courts and prisons into community programs and probation has been largely successful in the 11 months since the juvenile justice system was revamped advocates for the sweeping changes say.
The state's Raise the Age legislation, which increases the age of criminal responsibility, entered its first phase last October when 16-year-old offenders had to be segregated from adult offenders.
The next phase kicks in October 1, with the age of criminal responsibility going to 18 years old across the state, allowing judges to transfer the cases of 17-year-old defendants to the confidential setting of Family Court.
Citing newly released state data, Families Together in New York State, one of the advocacy groups that crusaded for the juvenile justice updates, said one of the most striking successes is that statewide felony arrests of 16-year-olds have declined by more than a third in the first phase of Raise the Age.
Another key statistic, the group said, is that 82 percent of the 16-year-olds arraigned on felony charges in the youth part of adult court have had their cases shifted to Family Court or probation in the first six months of the program.
The advocates are also applauding the fact that 1,013 people have had their criminal records sealed as a result of a provision designed to shield offenders from a stigma that could impair their ability to find jobs and housing.
Families Together chief executive officer Paige Pierce and the group's public policy director, Brad Hansen, told CNHI that the organization now wants to lead an effort at the statehouse to expand youthful offender protections in criminal law to persons up to the age of 25. Lawmakers are in recess and are scheduled to return to Albany in early January for a new legislative session.
"People shouldn't have their whole lives ruined because they made a stupid mistake when they were young," Pierce said in an interview.
A 65-page state report that officials say was compiled by several agencies concluded that the reorientation of New York's youth justice system is on track to have "adequate system capacity" for 17-year-old offenders when the second phase of Raise the Age begins in the next few weeks.
According to the state report, the state Office of Indigent Legal Services has taken steps to ensure that every 16-year-old is represented by a defense lawyer in criminal court proceedings. That agency has also initiated a computerized information-sharing platform that allows defense lawyers to craft strategies that ensure youth get "high quality representation" when they have to appear in court, the report said.
Advocates for an approach to juvenile justice that spares young offenders from the harsh realities of adult prisons and courts say the focus on rehabilitation over punishment will yield long-term benefits for public safety.
But that conclusion is questioned by some county sheriffs, however, said Peter Kehoe, the director of the state Sheriffs Association.
Kehoe said some sheriffs believe that exposing 16- and 17-year-olds to the possibility of being incarcerated can impact those offenders in ways that motivate them to stay on the right side of the law.
"They feel that all you're doing (with Raise the Age) is delaying a dose of reality for these folks," Kehoe said.
Kehoe and Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl said counties, before the new law was enacted in 2017, had already been diverting the vast majority of younger offenders into programs that spared them from being confined to jail.
"It's very unfortunate that our governor and our Legislature went way overboard in changing the entire law when it wasn't necessary," Muehl said. "I still think that a 17-year-old knows it's wrong to go into someone's building to steal."
In Delhi, Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond said he is unconvinced the new law will make towns and cities safer, suggesting the more lenient approach may put some youths on the path to becoming "hardened" violators.
"I think a lot of police officers, because of the lack of resources, are going to be doing curbside adjustments with these kids, and just send them on their way," DuMond said. "It will allow the kids' behavior to become more egregious until they do something really foolish and get themselves locked up."
The Raise the Age law has prompted many county governments to hire more probation officers to address the impacts of diverting youth away from jails into programs in their local communities.
That and other impacts have caused leaders of those local governments to press state officials to ensure that counties are fully reimbursed for any added costs arising from administering the changes in the juvenile justice system.
Stephen Acquario, director of the New York State Association of Counties, said the implementation of the new law "has been a smooth process up to this point."
When the additional changes to the system become effective October 1, counties will no longer be able to place 17-year-olds in jails. Acquario said county governments are in the process of executing contracts with the state so they can be reimbursed for their expenses.
"Successful implementation is critical to ensuring that impacted youth are given an opportunity to receive programming and services to help them thrive in their communities," he said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.