New York Approves Reforms To Keep Juvenile Offenders Out Of Adult Prisons
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
New York is 1 of only 2 states that sends 16- and 17-year-olds to adult prisons. Now that's about to change. Late last night, Republicans who control the New York state Senate approved reforms that will divert thousands of teenagers into family courts and alternative programs instead. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Charles Nunez was 17 when he was caught trying to sell a handgun illegally. He was sent to Rikers Island, the notoriously dangerous jail in New York City, where he found himself trapped between violent inmates and violent prison guards.
CHARLES NUNEZ: The first thing a correctional officer told me was, oh, are you ready for gladiator school?
MANN: Nunez says he had to fight with other inmates, but he made it out and works now as a prison reform activist. Alicia Barraza's son Benjamin wasn't so lucky. He was sent to adult prison when he was 17 years old for setting an arson fire. His mom says he was mentally ill. In prison, he was sexually assaulted by an older inmate.
ALICIA BARRAZA: It went on for several months until eventually they were both caught. And instead of our son being treated, you know, as a victim, he was given 70 days in solitary confinement.
MANN: Benjamin later committed suicide, hanging himself in a solitary confinement cell. New York and North Carolina are the only states that still try teenagers as adults and lock them up with adult inmates. Republicans in the New York State Senate led by Majority Leader John Flanagan resisted change for years, arguing that the current system gives police and prosecutors proper discretion. Flanagan spoke last month on the public radio program Capital Pressroom.
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JOHN FLANAGAN: We have great faith in making sure that our district attorneys have some very significant input in terms of how someone should be charged and, you know, how they should be treated through the criminal justice system.
MANN: Republicans argued that giving power to family court judges instead of prosecutors would favor criminals over victims. It seemed these reforms might fail again this year, but pressure has been growing with more studies showing teenagers held in adult prisons face serious risk of sexual abuse and suicide. They wind up committing more crimes after they're released compared with young people who are diverted into juvenile programs. In closed-door talks, Governor Andrew Cuomo finally won enough votes to push the measure through.
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ANDREW CUOMO: This is a legacy accomplishment. They have talked about passing raise the age for 12 or 13 years. It never got done. This budget does it.
MANN: Reform advocates worry about provisions of this deal that could still route youthful offenders back into adult court and adult prison if they're accused of committing extremely violent crimes. Alicia Barraza says this is a first step, and she hopes eventually all teenagers will be treated differently.
BARRAZA: Most of these kids - you know, the majority of them can be rehabilitated even if they've committed a serious crime.
MANN: This change will be phased in by 2019 and could affect as many as 25,000 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in New York every year. North Carolina would then be the only state that tries teenagers as adults, but lawmakers there are considering a similar measure. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we say 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.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.