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Cuomo presses to 'Raise the Age'

Governor Andrew Cuomo visited a state prison Thursday to announce he’s hiring  more  guards, and to push for a change in how 16 and 17 year olds are treated in the state prison system.

The governor has been pressing the issue known as "Raise the Age" since his State of the State message in January. It would no longer treat 16 and 17 year olds accused of violent crimes as adults, and instead house them in special detention centers separate from the adult state prison system. 

Cuomo, speaking at the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, south of Albany, says only New York and North Carolina treat the teen offenders as adults. He says it’s wrong to put them in prison with often violent adults.

“This is not going to be a positive experience, and they’re not going to be associating with positive people,” Cuomo said.

“In my opinion, it is too early to condemn a 16 year old to a life without redemption.”  

Cuomo says it also costs money, because time spent in prison early in life leads to a higher recidivism rate, and more years in state custody, at an average price of $50,000 a year per inmate.

Soffiyah Elijah, who runs the reform group the Correctional Association of New York, says the imprisonment disproportionately effects African American and Hispanic youth.

“We also know that the impulse part of the brain develops later in life,” said Elijah, who says the teens are put in problematic and violent situations before they are “finished  growing up”.

Cuomo says he’s the first governor to visit a state prison since his father, Mario Cuomo. The state’s prison population greatly increased under Mario Cuomo, who also built several new prisons.  Andrew Cuomo says now the prison population is shrinking, due to changing demographics, and reform of the Rockefeller Drug laws, which has led to fewer non violent drug offenders being incarcerated.

But Cuomo says while there are fewer inmates now, the ones left are more violent. He says that’s why he’s authorized the hiring of 100 new corrections officers, to be put in place by the end of the year.

“They put their life in harm’s way to protect New Yorkers,” said Cuomo. “They are in many ways the unsung heroes.”

Michael Powell, the President of the New York State Correctional Officers Association, the prison guards union, praised the move.

“We’ve seen the violence against our officers increase by more than 50 percent,” Powell said. “During that same period the violence against other inmates increased by more than 60 percent.”

Powell blames the rise of contraband synthetic marijuana and increased gang activity in the prisons.

While Assembly Democrats support the governor’s bill Senate Republicans have some disagreements. The measure would also require that 16 and 17 year olds accused of felonies be dealt with in family court, not criminal court. Some GOP Senators object to that.

The Raise the Age proposal is one of many agenda items still lingering unresolved as a legislative session overwhelmed by corruption arrests draws to a close.

The Governor is lowering expectations on what might get accomplished before adjournment, saying he and the legislature have already accomplished a lot.

“Look, it’s an interesting year,” Cuomo said. “We did a lot of the state’s work in the budget”.

Cuomo says on this issue, though, he’s asking lawmakers to “compromise” and reach an agreement before the summer recess .

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.