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Raise the Age talks in Albany get personal

Karen DeWitt

The state budget is due in 3 1/2 weeks, but the biggest push at the Capitol is for a change that is not a spending item. It’s a measure to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as children, not adults, when they are charged with serious crimes.

Many leading legislators say, for them, the issue is personal.

Those who support raising the age when New Yorkers are treated as adults in the criminal justice system from 16 to 18 held a rally Tuesday at the Capitol. Many of the leading Democrats in the Legislature spoke, including Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

“As a mother of three children, two black males, I can tell you that the encounters and the difficulties are real,” Stewart-Cousins said. “You can wind up in front of a judge in an adult court for a childish thing.”

She said only New York and North Carolina treat 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults, and it’s time for that to change.

“We don’t want to be partners with North Carolina anymore,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Stewart-Cousin’s faction does not control the Senate, however. The chamber is run by Republicans and a group of breakaway Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC. The breakaway Democrats also support the Raise the Age measure, including Sen. Jessie Hamilton, who said he’s putting pressure on the GOP to agree.

“I see all of us coming together,” Hamilton said. “Saying ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also spoke. He said as the first African-American speaker in state history, he’s personally “embarrassed” that the law, which disproportionately affects black youths, still stands.

“I’ve kind of really drawn the line that I can’t see me moving forward this session,” Heastie said, “unless we finally treat 16- and 17-year-olds like the children that they are.”

Heastie said teens that age are still “developing.”

Heastie stopped short of saying he would hold up the budget over the issue.

“I don’t like to make declarations or threats,” Heastie said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not appear at the rally, but his chief counsel, Alphonso David, spoke of the governor’s support. Cuomo already has acted administratively to keep 16- and 17-year-olds accused and convicted of crimes out of adult prisons, but he does not have the power to transfer their cases from criminal courts to family courts. A new law is needed for that change to happen.

In a statement, Cuomo urged the independent Democrats to put pressure on their Republican colleagues to get the law changed, saying the state should be “ashamed” of the policy.

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan offered some encouragement on reaching an agreement on Raise the Age, saying “earnest” discussions are going on.

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.