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Proposed change in age of criminality could strain county budgets, legal staffs

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LOWVILLE — A recent hearing to discuss a proposed law that would raise the age of criminality in New York to 18 gave Lewis County Attorney Richard J. Graham, as president of the County Attorneys’ Association of the State of New York, a chance to express the difficulties such a law could pose to Northern New York counties.

Speaking to the Joint Committee of the state Assembly, he said the association wasn’t necessarily opposed to the proposal, but did have concerns that, if the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds was shifted from County Court to Family Court, county attorneys would be responsible for the cases instead of district attorneys. Unlike the district attorney’s office, county attorney offices don’t receive any state aid-to-prosecution funds and don’t generally have large staffs of assistants.

“This is the unfunded mandate that we are concerned with,” he said. “It’s shifting it from the state budget to the county budget.”

New York is one of the last states to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to criminal charges, St. Lawrence County Public Defender Stephen D. Button said, so there has been a recent push among various legal organizations to have the state conform to the national model.

However, Lewis County Undersheriff James M. Monnat said many states have considered the issue anew in light of new evidence on child development and cognitive thinking.

“With permission from a parent, a 17-year-old can join the military,” he said. “People can drive at ages 16 and 17, but we are saying they can’t be held responsible in court at that age?”

There are many unanswered questions about the proposal, Mr. Button said, including how the teens would be represented, whether they would be eligible for jury trials and which offenses would be handled by Family Court.

“I personally don’t see the need for it,” Jefferson County Attorney David J. Paulsen said. “The remedies available to the County Court are just as good if not better for that age group than what could be available through Family Court.”

Under the Family Court Act, the county attorney is the prosecutor for any crime committed by a juvenile — someone under the age of 16, according to Mr. Paulsen.

The intent of that provision is to eliminate any stigma that might come with juveniles being processed through the criminal system, Mr. Paulsen said.

Mr. Graham said that small counties such as Lewis also would have a difficult time placing additional juvenile delinquents in detention facilities, since there are none within those counties.

He said that putting someone in a county jail costs about $100 a day, while a detention facility is about $300 per day.

“Resources may not be available,” he said.

The proposed law offers an alternative to sending offenders to Family Court, instead creating a hybrid youth court in criminal court and giving criminal court judges similar dispositional powers as a Family Court judge.

Undersheriff Monnat echoed Mr. Graham’s concerns of overburdening Family Court with cases that now are seen in criminal court, as the new law would dictate.

He also opposed the law for other reasons.

Undersheriff Monnat said he was not sure how the law could affect traffic arrests of 16- and 17-year-olds.

“I’m still looking into that,” he said.

Undersheriff Monnat did say that, while not in all cases, many people charged with crimes at ages 16 and 17 are reduced due to a first-time offender status.

The state also has a youthful offender statute that allows for sentence consideration and sealed records for youth in certain circumstances.

In St. Lawrence County, the county attorney’s office has one lawyer who handles juvenile delinquent cases in Family Court.

“If this bill passes, it would be fairly overwhelming on the county attorney staff,” Mr. Button said.

Juvenile delinquents who appear in Family Court are represented by law guardians who are paid through the Assigned Counsel program. Moving 16- and 17-year-olds out of criminal court likely would decrease the number of cases handled by the Public Defender’s office, Mr. Button said.

“I’m not sure how many those would be,” he said.

The shift also could affect the work of probation, which is responsible for juvenile delinquent petitions.

Family Court can place offenders on probation, but if they violate the terms of their probation, there is very little the court can do, given the fact that many of the facilities in the state that handle children in that age range have been shut, according to Mr. Paulsen.

“They’ve just eviscerated that,” he said.

In addition, the state does not typically place 16- and 17-year-olds in foster care.

On the other hand, offenders who fail to meet the terms of their County Court probation or are accused of a serious crime can be sent to jail, an option that would not be available if the prosecution was moved to Family Court, according to Mr. Paulsen.

“You take away the most serious consequences for dealing with the most serious offenders,” Mr. Paulsen said.

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