October 1, 2018 – Westchester County is one of many counties in New York State ready for major changes as the Raise the Age legislation has gone into effect.  The change, effective October 1, impacts 16 year olds who were previously processed as adults – now their cases will be handled by Family Court not Criminal Court.  Under the new law, 16 year old offenders will no longer be housed in adult jails, but rather be sent to a juvenile detention center – like Woodfield Cottage in Valhalla, NY.

In April 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed this new legislation that removes New York from the handful of states that treats youthful offenders as adults, and takes these teens out of the jail system and instead treats them at places like Woodfield.  In Westchester, adolescent offenders will now be overseen by the Westchester County Probation Department, and will be met with programs aimed at providing the needed treatment that better suits adolescent offenders.

While the most immediate challenge will be finding housing, Westchester County Probation Commissioner Rocco Pozzi said the County is also focused on teen wellbeing.  The new legislation has emerged less from compassion than from neuroscience. The personality traits and behavior of adolescents are still developing in their budding brains. As a result, 16- and 17-year-olds respond well to interventions, and can learn to make responsible choices more easily than older offenders – rather than being treated like hardened criminals, according to MacArthur Foundation research.

If the science isn’t compelling, the statistics certainly are. Young people imprisoned as adults are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than youth in juvenile facilities, and an astounding 36 times more likely to commit suicide, according to data compiled by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

But, while the County is committed to helping teens this new legislation doesn’t apply to all of them.  If the victim requests an order of protection, that case will automatically be forwarded to the Courts. Arsonists, sex offenders, repeat offenders and those who threaten the public safety are likewise routed directly to a judge. The violent felonies – sexual assaults, crimes committed with weapons, homicides, etc. – will likely not be diverted to Family Court. These cases however, only make up roughly 1 percent of the more than 20,000 juvenile charges in New York State each year.

Those who are charged with felonies will be treated differently also. They even get their own, new, classification under the law: “adolescent offender.”

Of the 260 cases brought to Probation last year, 160 were predisposed. But out of the 100 cases the Probation Department was allowed to handle, 97 were kept out of court. That’s an extraordinary achievement.  “Even when we know it's going to be a very difficult case, our job is to try and keep the juvenile in the community,” said Mary Frascello, Assistant Probation Commissioner.  There will be plenty more difficult cases now with the new law.  Everyone under the age of 18 will get the treatment as of October of 2019, when the law is completely phased in. 

As for Woodfield, the facility currently holds two dozen beds for juvenile offenders. Pozzi said it needs 30 more right away to properly handle the changes in State law. That’s not surprising when you realize that Woodfield is a regional facility, taking in offenders not only from Westchester, but Dutchess, Putnam, Orange, Rockland, Ulster and five other counties – making the total number of counties Woodfield Cottage serves stand at 12.

Pozzi’s short-term solution is to bring in modular homes. His office is in negotiations to obtain 20 such accommodations for boys, and ten more for the new female adolescent population.

The deadlines are tight, as will be the accommodations in the short term. Pozzi foresees a “few years” of the need for utilization of modular homes for Woodfield’s newest residents, while the County negotiates a plan with the Dormitory Authority of New York State to bond, and build, a permanent solution. In the meantime, upgrades at Woodfield Cottage to address the security needs of adolescent offenders – such as entrance doors, window and furniture upgrades – will be needed to ensure Woodfield’s ability to both house and provide meaningful programs. The state, Pozzi said, will be on the hook for the costs.