PLATTSBURGH — The State Department of Criminal Justice Services is teaming up with local law enforcement with the goal of lessening juveniles’ contact with the criminal-justice system.
The newly formed North County Regional Youth Justice Team, one of eight established across the state, met in Lake Placid recently, with officials in Clinton, Franklin, Essex, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties in attendance.
Members include representatives from probation departments, youth-advocate programs, social-services departments, police departments and treatment programs.
New York state defines juveniles as children ages 7 through 15.
Department of Criminal Justice Services Executive Deputy Commissioner Michael Green said Gov. Andrew Cuomo is making it a priority to minimize New York children’s experience with the juvenile-justice system while maintaining public safety, which is still the main concern.
”These Regional Youth Justice Teams will provide local communities with an opportunity to have a real voice in those reform efforts and have a direct line of communication to state leaders who are making the decisions to improve the system,” Green said in a news release.
The teams aim to decrease the number of children referred to court, address the disproportionate number of minority youth who enter the juvenile-justice system, improve access to services and create partnerships among the courts and local and state agencies in the development of community-based interventions, the release said.
The teams will also apply for federal, state and private grants that could help fund the effort.
’BIG FIRST STEP’
“The team is going to kick around some ideas about what specifically they would like to work on, and the state will be there to develop an action plan to drive the process forward,” said Tom Andriola, director of policy and implementation for the New York State Department of Public Safety, who attended the team’s first meeting.
“One of the things that we’re going to help the regional teams do is to look at what’s working in areas of the state; best practices.”
The teams will examine the kind of community-based programs from which juveniles could benefit if their cases were to be diverted after arrest.
“This opening the door to communication is a really big first step,” said Clinton County Probation Director Dave Marcoux said. “I think a lot of ideas will come out of the work of the project.”
In 2012, 73 juveniles were arrested in Clinton County; 42 in Essex and 155 in Franklin, according to data compiled by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Of those, four Clinton County and five Franklin County children were put in juvenile detention centers; none were from Essex County.
There are different paths a young person’s case may take following his or her arrest, Marcoux said.
If the crime is a “designated felony,” the case will be put in the hands of the district attorney’s office.
“They look at the case, and they determine whether or not there’s enough evidence to bring it forward to the court,” he said.
60 DAYS TO HELP
For lesser offenses, police will issue the youths a court appearance ticket, and a senior probation officer will evaluate the juveniles and determine any possible risk they could be to the public, as well as the children’s needs.
The Department of Probation is initially granted 60 days to help the children.
“We monitor how they’re doing in school. We meet with the parents and see how they’re doing at home,” Marcoux said.
“If everything goes perfectly in those 60 days ... we can actually adjust the case and close it.”
If not, the Probation Department may be granted more time to work with the children.
After that, the cases will either be disposed of or go into the court system.
The state has already taken steps toward juvenile-justice reform.
In the past two years, 18 upstate counties have spent about $3 million on community-based programs, such as family support, alternative house and respite care, the Department of Criminal Justice Services said in the release.
The governor may use input from the Youth Justice teams to help enact legislation aimed at improving the system, Green said.
Meanwhile, human-rights groups are calling for reform to the juvenile-justice system, saying New York is one of just two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal-justice system.
Children who enter the adult system are more likely to fall victim to physical violence or suicide in prison, according to the Citizens’ Committee of New York, one of the agencies lobbying for the change.
While 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are arrested in New York state each year, more than 75 percent of the crimes they are charged with are misdemeanors, according to the agency.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint why young people in the North Country turn to crime, some contributing factors may be poor social associations, drug usage or simply a lack of activities for them in the area, Marcoux said.
Many of the children whose cases are referred to the Probation Department require multiple services, he continued.
“A lot of kids that end up in probation .... they’re high-need kids.”
Whatever path a child’s case takes, the ultimate goal is rehabilitation, Marcoux said.
“I think placement should be the last resort.”
Juveniles who are put in detention centers will ultimately go back to the communities in which they committed crimes, he said, so positive changes in the homes, schools and communities are essential to maintaining public safety.
Marcoux said the North Country Regional Youth Justice Team plans to meet again in September.
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