December 4, 2021

Raise the age

Just weeks to go, Cortland still asking questions

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Cortland police investigator Elizabeth Starr works at her desk Wednesday at City Hall in Cortland. The room also doubles as the juvenile interrogation room.

A state plan to divert 16- and 17-year-old criminal defendants from the adult justice system takes effect in three weeks.

Cortland County officials are still figuring out how to do it.

The directive, which creates a new system to prosecute teens — 16-year-olds starting Oct. 1 and 17-year-olds a year later — has left a slew of unanswered questions. What equipment will the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office have to buy? Where will municipal police departments put youths to keep them apart from adults in a lock-up? What facilities need to be built to house offenders, and juveniles going through the justice system, and who will pay for that?

One department is budgeting for $1.4 million in costs — although the state has promised to reimburse counties later.

However, it’s all to ensure juveniles aren’t put in jail with adults or left with criminal records that could hamper them later in life. Research shows young people’s brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s, Vincent Schiraldi, a former commissioner of probation for New York City and research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, wrote in a New York Times article.

“Young adults are developmentally more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults, and are more prone to risk taking and influence by their peers,” Schiraldi wrote. “They think less about the future and are more volatile in emotionally charged settings.”

How does it work?
When a 16- or 17-year-old is arrested by Cortland City or Homer police, much of how they handle juveniles now will continue, but for more teenagers.

“Depending on what they are arrested for or picked up for, they are either brought home to their parents or if it’s a chargeable offense it’s turned over to juvenile division,” Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano said.

Cortland has one youth division sergeant; Catalano said finding space to put or hold the juveniles while they wait for court or their family will be difficult.

“We have challenges as it is now with our facility with anybody that we detain, but we’re really limited on where we can detain a juvenile, so that’s going to present an issue for us,” he said.

Juveniles are now held in a juvenile questioning room or the front lobby’s office.
It’s similar in Homer, Police Chief Robert Pitman said. The only change comes if the department needs to work with the Cortland County Sheriff’s office because of the changes that department faces.

However, Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms said even though his agency sees just one or two juveniles a year, he must still change the process.

“I usually don’t see a young person in there, a 16- or 17-year-old, just because there are so many avenues that they use to try and keep them from in here,” he said.

Now, 16- and 17-year-olds are housed in different areas of the jail away from adults.

When the law goes into effect, they won’t be able to even cross the threshold. It means Helms must buy a $28,000 fingerprint scanner because the one he has is in the jail.

“I personally see this as a huge financial issue for us that in my opinion didn’t need to be done,” Helms said.

It also means more work for the juvenile investigator, as well as other officers. Helms said that if he made an arrest today, the child could sit on a bench and the investigator keep working. But after Oct. 1, someone else must watch the suspect.

The other option is taking the defendant to a detention center for the night and then retrieving the child for court. Helms said he doesn’t know which ones will be used or where they will be. There are both secure and non-secure juvenile facilities in Ononadaga County. Broome County also has a non-secure facility. The travel could become costly.

“That’s probably the frustrating part because I see very little change that’s positive with me with how this is working,” Helms said. “It’s not going to help my budget and it’s not going to help me in the jail.”

What happens in court?
In court, all misdemeanors for 16- and 17-year-olds will be handled in Family Court. Felonies will go to a new Youth Part based inside the county court system, said Family Court Clerk Laurie Case.

Defendants will be placed into one of three categories; adolescent offender, juvenile offender or juvenile delinquent, depending on the offense and their age. Those categories then determine how the case will proceed through the court system.

Generally, non-violent felonies will be handled in a manner similar to misdemeanors. Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti will have more leeway in deciding how to handle violent felonies, and he said he’d like to move them to Family Court, as well.

While in custody, the suspects will be eligible for a variety of case services and programs to divert them from offending again and give them access to treatment for addiction or other problems. If convicted, they’re more likely to be diverted to probation or youth detention facilities rather than prison.

After-hour arraignments will be done in Cortlandville Town Court on a rotating schedule with Cortland County judges David Alexander and Julie Campbell and Cortlandville justices Francis Casullo and Lenore LeFevre. Cortland County Court Clerk Emily Stith said the idea is to have those judges follow an individual whose case is moved from Youth Part to Family Court.

Case said Family Court is projected to see anywhere from 50 to 75 cases a year, whereas Youth Part Court is estimating anywhere from six to 11 cases as the law takes full effect.

“We can figure out a process on paper,” Stith said. “But we don’t really know until we’re actually implementing it what works.”

Where will youths be housed?
The state has said adolescent offenders during pre-trial detention will be placed in secure juvenile detention facilities for older youths. They could also be placed in those facilities if they’ve received a sentence of a year or less sentence or in a Family Services secure facility. If they are under 18 and get a year or more sentence, they will go to a state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision adolescent offender facility. If they are older than 18, they’ll be placed in an adult facility.

Depending on the age, the state gives counties a variety of secure and non-secure options for housing the teens, including family services facilities or a county Department of Social Services.

Cortland County Department of Social Services Commissioner Kristen Monroe said 11 counties are exploring the idea of jointly developing the facilities. It is unclear how much it will cost.

“Although the state certifies and regulates detention facilities, the state does not develop or administer such facilities,” Monroe said in a written statement. “This group of counties is working with a consultant to determine how to best meet this detention mandate by pooling our resources and needs.”

Special secure detention facilities are meant for the youths who have committed serious crimes and are still in the court process. Monroe said Cortland County is looking to contract with larger facilities.

“If the determination is made that we need to create more detention beds, that will take time, so in the meantime we will seek placements in existing centers across the state on a case-by-case basis,” Monroe said.

She expects detention and foster care costs to increase her budget about $1.4 million in 2019, but Monroe said the state has promised reimbursement. She also said that her budget could increase even more once 17 year olds are phased in but after that it should plateau.

However, it does not ease the mind of at least one police official.

“Say hypothetically Onondaga (County) can take people for me, but once Onondaga’s full, well now where do I go?” Helms said.

What about diversion services?
Lisa Cutia, Cortland County’s probation director, said her department must provide in-house diversion programs for nearly twice as many teens. “Diversion programs are alternatives to initial or continued formal processing of youth in the juvenile delinquency system,” according to

“We already do juvenile delinquency diversion service, but we’re talking about a larger population now,” Cutia said, as many as 110 youths between 7 and 15, up from about 60.

When a person goes through probation they could be eligible for diversion services or pre-trial voluntary case planning services. Cutia said it allows them to work with youths who need services for drugs and alcohol, among other things.

She is vetting several programs.

“The difference between us and some of the larger communities or more metropolitan communities is that we also have to look for things that we can do with youth on an individual basis because we don’t’ often have enough youth all at the same time to actually conduct groups,” Cutia said.

Cutia is budgeting for another staff member. Ultimately the goal is to make sure the juvenile stays with family and in the community, she said.

Departments plan to keep moving forward, even with questions remaining.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions and I think we’re just going to have to go through the growing pains of experiencing that,” Catalano said.

“We’ll get the flow,” Case said. “We’ll work together and figure it out.”