New York's chief judge says 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for nonviolent crimes should be tried as juveniles.
But such a change would put the squeeze on county governments already struggling to meet the state's 2 percent tax cap, according to Essex County officials.
Chief Court of Appeals Judge Jonathan Lippman said last year that the jurisdiction of family courts should be extended to include 16- and 17-year-olds. In a statement posted on the New York Center for Juvenile Justice's website, Lippman said the age of criminal responsibility in New York was a "glaring problem."
"Every year, about 45,000 to 50,000 youths aged 16 and 17 are arrested in New York and prosecuted as adults in our criminal courts - overwhelmingly for minor crimes," he said.
Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia mark the age of criminal responsibility at 18. Eleven other states set the age at 17: New York and North Carolina are the only states in the U.S. to prosecute 16-year-olds as adult criminals.
Lippman has called for lawmakers to "fast-track" legislation changing the jurisdiction of family courts. It hasn't happened yet, but officials in places like Essex County are already preparing for the potential ramifications.
Essex County Attorney Dan Manning said moving 16- and 17-year-olds into family court would have a "significant monetary affect" on the county.
"It may well double the cost associated with the JD (juvenile delinquent) prosecutions that (Assistant County Attorney) Carl (Rubino) does in my office," Manning said during a recent county board meeting. "It is going to increase probation's expenses significantly. It is going to increase the family court expenses significantly, as well as social services.
"We are going to have to find some money. Carl anticipates, and from some of the literature that I have read on the Internet, that our JD prosecutions will double, so you will be looking for probably more money there."
According to Manning, recent estimates by New York City officials cite a potential $20 million increase in family court expenses there if the proposed change ends up being law.
Rubino, a part-time assistant Essex County attorney who prosecutes juvenile delinquent cases in family court, confirmed that his workload would likely double.
"And it may more than double," he said, "because even if the numbers were only a simple double, whatever they might be, as a person gets older, the likelihood is that their crime is more serious; their case may take more time. So there may be an increased workload of greater than 100 percent."
The Essex County Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution asking the state Legislature to provide financial assistance to counties if state law changes the age of juvenile delinquents. County Manager Dan Palmer said the law isn't expected to pass in the near future.
Palmer noted that several test locations are trying 16- and 17-year-olds in family court to see how it works.
"The biggest issue is that by raising that age, you start to run into more serious crimes, and when you start running into more serious crimes in family court, there's no such thing as bail or anything like that," he said. "So you potentially could run into placement issues where you have to take the individual out of their home and place them with another home, and that gets to be where the real expensive cost comes in."
Chesterfield town Supervisor Gerald Morrow said he agrees that teens under the age of 18 should be placed in family courts for less serious crimes. But he said changing the law could result in another unfunded mandate.
"The state, if they want to lower the age, they should pay for this unfunded mandate," Morrow said. "That's what we're asking here, is for the state to pay for it. Not that we're against doing it, but just pay for it."
Legislation to change the age of juvenile delinquents has been introduced in the state Assembly in recent years, but it hasn't gone anywhere and has lacked a sponsor in the Senate.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, a Willsboro Republican whose district includes most of Essex County, said family courts are already overwhelmed. She said in some cases, juveniles should be tried in family court, but in general, the system is working.
"I don't think they (family courts) could handle it with the set-up that they have right now," Sayward said.
Meanwhile, the state has made some progress in reforming New York's juvenile justice system. Several years ago, officials estimated the state spent more than $200,000 annually to lock up just one juvenile delinquent. Lippman said those state facilities were often "breeding grounds for abuse and future criminality."
Under the Cuomo administration, Lippman said the number of young people incarcerated for misdemeanors has dropped from more than 2,200 to fewer than 700. Cuomo also took action to close down several youth prisons.