CORTLAND, N.Y. — Raising the age of criminal prosecution in New York State would put a strain on local governments and have unintended consequences on municipal courts.
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Those were some of the conclusions drawn at a community forum hosted at the Beard Building by the League of Women Voters of Cortland County Wednesday night, which tackled the issue of whether or not 16-and 17-year-olds should be treated as juveniles in criminal cases.
New York and North Carolina are the only two states where youthful offenders between the ages of 16 and 17 are prosecuted as adults.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he supports raising the age. A commission he established last year to examine the issue released a report in January recommending the age of criminal prosecution be increased to 18. The New York State Legislature failed to reach an agreement on raise the age legislation earlier this year.
Cortland Police Chief Michael Catalano said Wednesday that New York State has a “robust youth offender status system” that helps local courts and the city police department deal with a younger spectrum of criminal activity.
“16-and 17-year-olds can commit some pretty serious crimes,” Catalano said. “So can 14 and 15-year-olds, and depending on the seriousness, they can be dealt with as adults as well.”
Raising the age of criminal prosecution would also be costly to the city’s police department, Catalano said. Currently, only one sergeant in the department is tasked with handling all juvenile crimes, and raising the age would likely require the department to hire another officer, he said.
Lisa Cutia, the director of the Cortland County Probation Department, said raising the age would also incur significant additional costs in her department.
“We are looking at a huge increase in the amount of work that’s going to come through the probation department,” Cutia said. “With our existing personnel, we are not going to be able to accommodate that.”
Opponents of raising the criminal age of prosecution have cited the high costs associated with housing older juveniles in youth detention centers. In a 2014 report commissioned by the Texas State Legislature, researchers found that housing a juvenile in a youth facility can cost seven times as much as placing them in an adult facility.
Cortland County District Attorney Mark Suben said while the governor’s initiative is well intentioned, it could have unintended consequences on local courts.
“I think there’s a difference between how upstate rural district attorneys like myself deal with juveniles that commit crimes and downstate and larger urban areas that deal with juveniles,” Suben said. “The governor’s proposal would take away virtually all of the discretion we now exercise.”
If the governor’s proposal passes, certain juveniles in Cortland County who commit violent felonies would be transferred to the county’s Family Court system, which Suben said is already overburdened.
Advocates for raising the age to 18 have argued that adolescents who are placed in the adult criminal justice system are more susceptible to physical and emotional abuse and more likely to end up incarcerated in the future.
Mechthild Nagel, a professor of philosophy at SUNY Cortland who has taught in youth detention centers and adult prisons, said youths who are housed with adults are at greater risk of committing suicide and becoming victims of physical abuse.
“The daily rate of adolescent incarcerations in adult facilities continues to be horrendous,” Nagel said. “The vast majority of these young people in New York State are youth of color, black and Latino.”
Panelists were asked what impact raise the age legislation would have if the county were to construct a new jail. Chief Catalano said if the legislation passes, any new jail would have to include more space for more juveniles.
“We as a community have to take that into account now if we are raising the age,” Catalano said.
Video of the Dec. 16, 2015 event will air on Time Warner Channel 2:
— Tuesday, December 22nd at 8:00 PM
— Wednesday, December 23rd at 10:00 AM
— Monday, December 28th @ 7:00 PM
— Tuesday, December 29th @ 10:00 AM
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