ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Jim Saint Germain was mixed up with drugs and just shy of 16 when he was arrested and sent to a juvenile facility. Things might have been different had he been a year older and tried as an adult.
“I could’ve been in Attica. In Sing Sing. I would have been sent to Rikers Island. Instead I was given a chance,” said Saint Germain, who is now pursuing a master’s degree at New York University. “It saved my life.”
Saint Germain, 25, brought his story to the state Capitol on Tuesday in an effort to convince state lawmakers to change New York’s policy of automatically prosecuting 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults.
New York and North Carolina are the last two states that automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to prosecution and incarceration. Studies show adolescent offenders are much more likely to be sexually assaulted or to commit suicide if they are sent to an adult prison rather than a juvenile facility.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed changing the law so all but the most violent 16- and 17-year-olds are dealt with in the juvenile justice system. The governor points to research that shows adolescents lack the decision-making skills of adults, and to studies that shows they are less likely to commit more crimes if treated as juveniles. Those accused of particularly violent crimes could still be tried as adults.
“Incarcerating our young people in adult prisons is an abject practice that must end,” Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday. “There is no excuse for subjecting hundreds of youth to an environment where they’re being hurt, not helped.”
In 2011, New York’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, recommended sending all nonviolent juvenile offenders to family court. In 2012, Lippman wrote that “treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults flies in the face of what science tells us about adolescent development. … The adult criminal justice system is simply not designed to address the special problems and needs of 16- and 17-year-olds.”
Some prosecutors question whether the proposal is needed, noting that the existing criminal justice system has built-in protections for young offenders. In 2013, 33,064 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in New York. More than half saw their charges dismissed. Only 2.7 percent were sentenced to prison.
“It’s like they want to portray New York as some sort of ‘Bleak House’ out of Dickens,” said Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita, president of the state D.A. association. “The only time you’re going to see juveniles do any kind of time is for a very violent felony.”
Other law enforcement groups support the change, including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and a group of eight sheriffs who recently wrote to legislative leaders recommending the change.
“I’m not trying to say we should be soft on crime,” said one of them, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple. “What I’m saying is that our 16- and 17-years olds would be better served in a family court system … where they can get the appropriate care.”
The proposal is one of several proposals from Cuomo related to the juvenile justice system that include changes in sentencing rules and a prohibition on the housing of minors in adult prisons. The measures are now under legislative review.