Bill would raise age juveniles can be prosecuted as adults

Kahton Anderson, 14, is shown being brought into Kahton Anderson, 14, is shown being brought into Criminal Court Central Booking in Brooklyn on March 21, 2014. Photo Credit: New York Daily News / Julia Xanthos

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Long Island youth advocates and prominent local officials are backing a bill to raise the age juveniles can be prosecuted as adults following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's call to re-examine the youth sentencing system.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in misdemeanor and felony cases -- a standard Cuomo called "outdated" in his State of the State address in January.

Other states prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults on a conditional basis as determined by a judge.

Cuomo said he would create a Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice to examine raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

The Long Island Progressive Coalition, a Massapequa-based activist group; Make the Road NY, a Brentwood immigrant advocacy group; and Herstory Writers Workshop, a Centereach nonprofit that provides writing workshops at local jails, have joined more than 80 statewide groups in backing a bill by Assemb. Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio (R-Seneca Falls) to raise the adult prosecution age.

The groups cite multiple studies in arguing that incarcerating juveniles among adults increases the chances they will become repeat offenders.

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"It's really about addressing the underlying issues of why these kids are ending up in jail and making sure rehabilitation is involved," said Serena Liguori, program director for justice and advocacy at Herstory.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco support raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 for all young offenders.

In a joint statement provided to Newsday, they said raising the age would prevent "relatively inexperienced" youth offenders from being "immersed in an environment with much more experienced peers who have committed much more serious offenses."

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Bellone and DeMarco said "Anyone who commits a crime, no matter how old they are, must be held accountable for their behavior. But . . . we must make smart choices as a community as to how we best protect public safety. And the best way to do so is to rehabilitate young people before they get on the treadmill of recidivism."

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice supports the increase for those charged with nonviolent crimes.

"Locking up nonviolent 16- and 17-year-olds when science tells us that they still lack the ability to discern the consequences for their actions is just plain wrong," Rice said at a March 13 event celebrating Nassau's Youth Court.

There were 45,692 16- and 17-year olds arrested as adults in 2010 -- including 1,258 from Nassau and 1,443 from Suffolk -- the state Department of Criminal Justice Services said in a January 2013 report.

State law also allows 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds to be tried as adults for certain crimes, including murder.

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Recently, Kahton Anderson, 14, of Brooklyn, was charged as an adult with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Angel Rojas, 39, on a city bus on March 20.

Prospects for the state legislation are unclear.

Bills to raise the age have failed in each of the past three years because of opposition in the state Senate. Republicans continue to raise questions about what sorts of crimes should fall under the age increase.

"If you have a gun and you shoot a child or you shoot an individual, there are responsibilities for your actions," said Sen. Martin J. Golden (R-Brooklyn), a retired New York City police officer. "Everyone knows at 16 or 17 that having a gun is wrong and it has the potential to kill someone."

Golden said he'd be open to the measure if it excluded violent offenses that lead to death, including selling drugs.

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Sen. Pat Gallivan (R-Buffalo), chairman of the Senate Crime and Corrections Committee, said Cuomo's highlighting of the issue in his speech "raised the likelihood that we'll spend a greater deal of time discussing" it.

Cuomo's office did not return calls for comment.

With David M. Schwartz

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