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Push On To Raise The Age For Teen Prison Sentences In NY

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is pushing for a measure to stop treating 16 and 17 year-olds as adults in New York's criminal justice system.

Heastie, the first African American Speaker, says the proposals, which would take 16 and 17 year-olds out of the adult criminal justice system and treat them as juveniles in family court, is a personal one for him.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Heastie. “It’s hurtful to me that New York and North Carolina are the only ones who still treat 16 and 17 year-olds as adults.”  

Jim St. Germaine, a college graduate and a father of young children, says when he was a teenager in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he “made a lot of poor decisions”, including selling drugs at age 14 and having run-ins with the law.

“My brain was not fully developed enough to understand the potential consequences of some of the decisions I was making,” said St Germaine, who says “fortunately” he was arrested  four months before his 16th birthday, and was sent to the juvenile justice system.

He says that made all the difference. There he met counselors and other social service providers who cared for him and helped him turn his life around. He now works with teens who are incarcerated in the same juvenile detention center where he spent time.

But he says he also knows of teens who ended up in the adult prison system, and whose lives have been “wasted”.

He says 16 and 17 year-olds are not allowed to buy cigarettes or alcohol, or vote or serve in the military.

“So many things they cannot do,” St Germaine said. “But as soon as they make a mistake we’re willing to charge them as an adult.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo tried unsuccessfully last year to get the bills through the State Senate, where Republicans, led by Senator John Flanagan and break away Democrats, led by Senator Jeff Klein, form a ruling coalition.  

Cuomo issued executive orders to partially enact the changes. He separated the 16 and 17 year-olds from adults in state prisons, but he can’t, on his own, require that their cases be handled in family court.

The governor once again has put the measures in his state budget. Speaker Heastie stopped short of saying that he would hold up the budget, due March 31, over the issue.

“I don’t want to make declarations,” said Heastie, who said he’s expressed the importance of the issue to Senators Klein and Flanagan. “It’s a pretty serious part of the negotiations.”

Governor Cuomo has enhanced powers in the budget process to push through policy changes, which is why he often attaches unrelated items to his spending plan. He can use the pressure of the fiscal end of the year deadline to forge agreements, as he did last year with an increase in the state’s minimum wage. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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