A proposal by the New York State Chief Judge would raise the age for non-violent juvenile offenders to be sent to Family Court, keeping them out of the criminal court system.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's proposal would send all non-violent juveniles to Family Court, removing prosecutors' discretion over whether to keep the 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court.
Lippman told the Associated Press that more than 45,000 juveniles are arrested annually in New York, with most of them prosecuted.
He says studies show they have a far higher recidivism rate than those sent to Family Court, where the purpose is to look after the best interests of the teens. Lippman says the young offenders are still immature and don't know how to assess risks and consequences.
Chautauqua County Family Court Judge Judith Claire agrees with the ideas behind Lippman's proposal.
"I of course work with young people all the time," she said. "We do juvenile delinquents and persons in need of supervision, kids who are truant or are in trouble of some kind, and the research uniformly across the nation and internationally has shown that teenagers' brains aren't fully developed. It is one of the reasons they make poor decisions for themselves. And in fact, the brain doesn't close until a person is in their early 20s in terms of stopping development. If you are 16, 17, 18, which is the cutoff age we are talking about, you are not getting that help. You are going to court, you are getting sent to jail or prison as the case may be, and you don't receive any assistance. But you are not really an adult yet. When I think of my own kids when they were 16, 17 (or) 18, they had a lot of growing up to do yet. And certainly a kid who is getting into trouble probably needs even more assistance."
As it stands now, New York is one of two states in the country that segregates juveniles under the age of 18, said David Foley, Chautauqua County district attorney. New York state handles all 16- and 17-year-old juvenile offenders through the criminal courts.
However there are protections built in, he said. One of these being the youthful offender status. Up to the age of 18, any juvenile handled through the criminal court is eligible for youthful offender status, based upon offender status and the crime committed.
"For 16- and 17-year-old first-time offenders for a non-felony charge, it is mandatory youthful offender treatment," said Chautauqua County Court Judge John Ward. "That means the record is sealed, it is not considered a conviction for purposes of future employment. For a first-offense non-violent felony, it is discretionary with the court but almost always they receive youthful offender judication."
However this does not mean these juveniles are off the hook. They can still do time in jail as well as probation and other court-mandated activities.
The difference between family court and criminal court, Claire explained, is that criminal court is about punishment and family court deals with rehabilitation.
"The difference between Family Court and adult court, adult court is aimed at punishment, period," she said. "While Family Court deals with punishment, it also deals with rehabilitation. Part of our job is to help young people turn their lives around and get healthy, if we possibly can. It is a challenge, it is difficult, but we know it can be done because we have done it. And while we don't do it in every case, we have done it enough that we have some sense of what can work or how to make it work."
Ward said he wanted to make it clear that these juveniles who come to criminal court are not automatically sent to jail.
"In theory the idea of rehabilitation and bringing families back together and the things that Family Court can do with the resources they have would be fine in certain cases, but I don't want people to get the impression that the criminal courts are unable to help 16- and 17-year-olds who get themselves in trouble," he said. "We have the ability to refer either through probation, diversion courts or treatment courts, those young people into programs and to agencies that can help them with whatever problems led to them committing the offense they commit. We do have a lot of resources at our disposal to help. It is not just automatically getting a criminal conviction, go to jail or put on probation. Sometimes a combination of jail and probation with referrals to agencies is a good wake up call to a young person."
He said that though the resources available to both courts are different, they are there to help these juveniles.
"In criminal court right now there are so many new opportunities available to judges to help young kids in trouble to get the type of attention treatment they need in order to turn themselves around," he said "It is actually one of the most satisfying parts of being a judge, when you can get to somebody at that age, have them see the error of their ways and turn them around and they turn out to be productive and successful."
Eighth Judicial District Administrative Judge Paula Feroleto explained that there are many problems within the proposal.
One of these problems is the already bogged down court system.
"It is wonderful if you have a 16-year-old, you really need the resources in the family court, but you just couldn't put more cases on these folks," she said. "Judge Claire is almost the busiest family court judge in the state in terms of the volume she handles. More cases with the current staff isn't doable."
Ward agreed with her assessment.
"My first reaction was the tremendous impact, burden it is going to have on the family court system which is already overburdened," he said.
Claire explained that her court deals with an average of 9,000 cases annually, and that added cases to this will only add more difficulty to her office.
"I am concerned about the increase in the case load, as we already lack the personnel and the resources to deal with the case load that already exists," she said. "There has been an expansion of family court responsibilities in the past several years and this is one more thing that although needed will create stress on family courts."
To alleviate the burden this new proposal will place on family courts, Ward said that a provision within the proposal must fund the courts.
"I immediately thought that if they are going to do this, it is going to require the creation of added Family Court judges and the cost benefit analysis has to be looked at in that regard," he said. "It may take some of the case load away from the criminal court and shift it to the family courts but like I said, family courts handle so many cases now that they are going to have to provide the resources to the family court judges and I cannot see any other way then providing more judges if they are going to increase the case load."
Feroleto echoed this statement.
"You need resources to implement it and you need more than just the court piece to make it work," she said.
Foley explained the pros of the proposal, which will have consistent treatment of juveniles as well as come in line with most of the rest of the country in this regard.
"The pros of doing away with it I think would be that you would have more consistent treatment of these 16- or 17-year-olds, they would be treated as a 15-year-old would be treated. In other words, the age of majority in this country is typically 18, prior to that why are we separating 16- and 17-year-olds out and treating them differently then we treat a 14- or 15-year-old? To a certain degree there would be some parity in the whole thing, some fairness," Foley said.