As part of his 2018 budget address last week, County Executive Mike Hein announced plans for an ambitious new initiative to address youth crime and recidivism as the county’s Family Court system prepares to deal with hundreds of 16- and 17 year-old offenders who were previously treated as adults.
The proposed “Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center,” Hein said, would serve as a clearing house for support services to address underlying issues like poverty, lack of educational opportunity and trauma that contribute to a “school-to-prison pipeline” that disproportionately impacts minority youth.
“I believe [the center] can ultimately become a center of hope and make all the difference in the world for at-risk youth, providing real hope where before there was none,” Hein said in his budget address at a vacant space in the county Probation Department’s building on Broadway, which will house the new program.
Hein’s proposal comes as Family Courts statewide brace for the impact of thousands of new clients following the passage of a “raise the age” law as part of the state’s budget process earlier this year. Previously, New York was one of just two states that set 16 as the “age of criminal responsibility,” where offenders are tried in adult courts and face adult sentences. Progressive activists have long sought to raise that age, pointing to high rates of recidivism and other poor outcomes for incarcerated teens and the disproportionate number of black and Latino youth in the system.
The new law raises the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds accused of certain serious crimes can still be tried as adults in a special youth division of state Supreme Court. But the vast majority of the cases will fall on county-based Family Courts, which currently handle offenders under the age of 16.
“Raise the age” is being phased in. In October 2019, 16-year-olds will be removed from the adult system; 17-year-olds will follow the next year. Deputy County Executive Bob Sudlow, the former head of the county’s probation office, said once the transition is complete, some 180 to 200 new juvenile offenders will be placed under the purview of Ulster County Family Court each year. Sudlow said the expected tide of new juvenile cases, previously handled in town and city courts or, in the most serious cases, county court, would now fall on the county’s Family Court and Probation Department.
“Now we have a huge resource issue in terms of how do we deal with these kids,” said Sudlow.
The county Probation Department currently plays a crucial role in juvenile justice. It’s the first stop for juvenile offenders after they are taken into custody by police. There, defendants are assessed by a probation officer who can order dispositions ranging from return to the custody of a parent with no further action to immediate placement in a secure facility pending further action in Family Court. Once in Family Court, offenders are assigned counsel while a county attorney serves as prosecutor. Judges may impose sentences that include placement in a juvenile detention center, or court orders requiring the accused to attend school, participate in diversionary programs or follow restrictions.
Failure to comply with Family Court orders can result in youths being incarcerated in a secure facility, a group home or another mandatory residential program.
Under Hein’s proposed plan, the Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center would divert 16- and 17-year-old offenders out of Family Court and into a system of individually tailored support services addressing everything from domestic violence in the home to lack of educational opportunity due to suspension or expulsion from school. Hein said he chose the Probation Department annex as the site of the new initiative to bring home to juvenile offenders the choice they faced.
“We’re saying, literally, choose your path,” said Hein. “You can go through that door [to the probation department] with the metal detectors and the guys with guns standing around, or you can go through that door and access the tools that can help you get to a better place in your life.”
Plans call for the annex to be renovated and turned into program space as part of a $1.6 million capital project. Once complete, it will serve as a hub for a multi-agency effort involving the Kingston City School District, Family of Woodstock, the Probation Department and the county Office of Employment and Training. Each client would receive a formal assessment to determine what programs or services they need. Sudlow said that the center would operate based on “evidence-based” programming that incorporated treatment models that had been demonstrated to reduce recidivism and boost positive outcomes for at-risk teens.
Sudlow added that the programming would also incorporate diversion efforts for 16-and 17-year-old offenders currently in place in local courts. Sudlow said the overall goal of the center would be to keep kids out of the more punitive — and vastly more expensive — environment of Family Court, while maintaining public safety by putting troubled youth on a more positive path.
“We know that the sooner you address these things, the better outcome you have,” said Sudlow.
Administration of the center will fall to a task force of local law enforcement and social services and education officials who will serve as a board of directors. The task force will include District Attorney Holley Carnright and county Probation Director Melanie Mullins.
“We have a buy-in from everyone,” said Sudlow. “It’s a really experienced team and they will be looking at high-quality programs that will really have an impact on the community.”