- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo has revised his proposal for keeping juveniles out of New York’s adult prisons and jails.

Draft legislation in the Democrat’s budget for the coming year would process most 16- and 17-year-old defendants accused of felonies in new youth sections of state criminal courts instead of family courts. If approved by the Legislature, most young criminals would go to juvenile detention facilities, though some convicted of the most serious crimes would go to separate youth units at state prisons.

The governor and other advocates say adult jails and prisons increase the likelihood of both youth suicides and getting locked up again in the future.

“We know that when troubled youths are sent to adult prisons, it sets the stage for a life of violence, recidivism, with little prospect for the rehabilitation that would prepare them to return to their communities as productive and responsible adults,” Sheila Poole, whose agency is responsible for juvenile detention, told lawmakers this week. “Removing young people from the adult criminal system will improve outcomes.”

Objections to last year’s proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility from age 16 to 18 included family courts that are already overloaded and concerns that violent young criminals would get light punishment there.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that process 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal system.

Under the Cuomo administration’s new proposal, juveniles accused of felonies could be transferred to family court if prosecutors agree. Youths accused of misdemeanors, low-level crimes that can carry short local jail sentences under current law, would go to family court.

At hearings this week in Albany, several lawmakers questioned the latest plan, noting a federal directive to New York to segregate juveniles from adult inmates that prompted Cuomo’s executive order in December to move many of the 100 juveniles convicted of felonies and housed in state prisons, to a new corrections unit away from older prisoners.

Hudson Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison south of Albany, is getting overhauled to take the transferred young inmates starting by September. Others with maximum-security classifications could remain in a separate juvenile unit at the nearby Coxsackie Correctional Facility or other prisons.

“Newly sentenced 16 and 17 year olds would continue to start in criminal court,” said Poole, acting commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services. “The difference is once they are sentenced they wouldn’t go to (the corrections department) or to local jail for those who have very short sentences, but they would come to OCFS.”

The office will develop a method for classifying them for service needs and the right level of placement, Poole said.

The new proposal could eventually require 700 more beds at secure juvenile-detention centers, Poole said. She said there is some room available in a system that includes a reception center in Brooklyn and 11 facilities, four of them secure.

Sen. Catherine Young, a Republican from western New York, acknowledged the change from Cuomo’s earlier proposal, but said she and other lawmakers still have concerns that violent criminals could still go to family court “and actually have a decriminalization and a big reduction in the penalty.”

Poole said that while the top offenses are burglary, robbery and assault, “a very high percentage of those 16- and 17-year-olds that have been coming to the attention of the system are non-violent offenses.”

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