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Effort to raise the age for state prison sentences for teens convicted of crimes

Karen DeWitt
Speaker Heastie, with Raise the Age supporters,in Albany on February 14

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

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

“It’s embarrassing,” Heastie said. 

Jim St. Germaine, a college graduate and a father of young children, said 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 said he “fortunately” was arrested four months before his 16th birthday and was sent to the juvenile justice system.

He said that made all the difference. He met counselors and other social service providers there 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 said he also knows of teens who ended up in the adult prison system whose lives have been “wasted.”

He said 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.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried unsuccessfully last year to get the bills through the state Senate, where Republicans, led by Sen. John Flanagan, and breakaway Democrats, led by Sen. 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. 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 Klein and Flanagan. “It’s a pretty serious part of the negotiations.”

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.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that New York and North Carolina are the only states that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.  

While they are the only states that regularly route 16-year-olds into adult courts and prisons, a total of seven states still try 17-year-olds as adults and in some cases imprison them with adult inmates.  

Other states try teenagers as adults only in cases involving extreme violence or other aggravating circumstances.

New York will gradually shift 16- and 17-year-olds into family court and juvenile detention centers over the next two years.

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.