By Andrew Keshner

April 22, 2013 New York Law Journal - Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is pressing for passage of a revamped juvenile justice reform bill designed to address financial concerns that prevented a prior bill from gaining traction.

Last year, Lippman unveiled a bill that would have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 from 16 for non-violent crimes but the legislative session ended without the bill emerging from committees in either house. A major sticking point was the cost county governments would bear through their probation departments handling cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds in addition to the ones involving younger arrestees (NYLJ, June 26, 2012).

But in an April 19 speech at a juvenile justice conference at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Lippman touted a reworked bill that addressed "the serious fiscal challenges currently facing state and local governments."

"The bill that I propose is politically doable and is good public policy that recognizes the latest scientific advances and best practices in juvenile justice reform," Lippman told the more than 150 attorneys, judges, professors, students and advocates gathered at the symposium.

The bill's core remains the same: the age of criminal responsibility would rise to 18 from 16 and a so-called "youth division" within the criminal terms of County and Supreme courts would adjudicate non-violent misdemeanor and felony cases for 16- and 17-year-olds.

The youth division would meld elements of Family Court and Criminal Court, with some cases referred to local probation departments for "adjustment," where the case is resolved outside the court system.

But youths whose cases proceed through the youth division would have criminal protection rights like bail and speedy trial requirements.

If a youth is found guilty, the outcome is not deemed a conviction that results in a criminal record. Instead, the dispositions would be sealed similar to provisions in the Family Court Act.

Without legislative changes that both decriminalize certain offenses committed by 16- and 17-year-olds and expand sentencing options, judges are restricted in the types of dispositions and sentences they can hand down. Furthermore, without legislation, adjustment by a probation department is not available to 16- and 17-year-olds.

But in his speech, Lippman noted "important" revisions in the latest version of the bill that "alleviate" the financial impact of the proposed legislation.

The latest bill requires the court system to reimburse local probation departments for adjusting cases of 16- and 17-year-olds. Reimbursement from the courts would "relieve local government of any new fiscal burden," Lippman said.

Moreover, to further relieve pressure on probation departments, the bill allows for youth division judges to "initially screen cases" to decide if they are suitable for adjustment through the probation department.

"Placing this gate-keeping function with the courts will relieve probation departments of the need to evaluate cases that, for whatever reason, are not suitable for adjustment," he said.

Last year's version of the bill provided for detention in facilities run by the Office of Children and Family Services. But the latest version stuck with the current statutory arrangement whereby incarcerated 16- and 17-year-olds are held in adult facilities but apart from adult prisoners.

"By maintaining the current statutory arrangement rather than proposing that these 16- and 17-year-olds be housed in extremely expensive juvenile facilities that we know have their own risks, the legislation will relieve local governments of any new detention costs," he said, adding that nevertheless the courts were working with municipalities like New York City to "develop better ways to handle detained youths."

Senator Michael Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, chairman of the Senate's Codes Committee, introduced the bill earlier this month in his committee. The Senate bill, S4489, has no Assembly companion.

In questions following the address, Lippman was asked whether it was politically expedient to focus only on non-violent crimes or did he believe the state was justified in prosecuting minors as adults for serious crimes.

"Both," Lippman replied, prompting chuckles in the audience. "Could we make some progress on that issue in New York? Maybe we could. But it would poison the well in terms of any ability to change of the age of criminal responsibility."

In an interview after the speech, Lippman said the costs the court system would bear under the new proposal were still undetermined. Asked where the courts would find the funds for reimbursement, Lippman said, "We're going to cover it and tighten our belts because this is so important."

Lippman declined to speculate on the probability of the bill's passage.

"I think that we made progress over the first year so I would hope that we would have a smoother path to get it done," he said. "But it's hard."