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[**NEW STORY** ] In New York, support is growing for a bill that would raise the age of criminal responsibility that would effectively remove hundreds of 16- and 17-year-olds from adult prisons. North Carolina is the only other state that still routinely prosecutes younger teens as adults and locks them up alongside regular inmates. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN: When Charles Nunez was 17 years old, he was arrested for carrying a handgun that he says he was trying to sell in Harlem. As state law requires, he was prosecuted as an adult and sent to Rikers Island, New York City's prison, where he says he was quickly targeted by older men who wanted to steal his boots and his commissary money.
CHARLES NUNEZ: One night, when we were locking in to go to sleep, some dude just like - like just hit me while I was walking toward my cell while they were doing count. He basically like - kind of like just knocked me out, because I, like, blacked out.
MANN: Nunez says he wound up fighting again and again. Anjelique Waddington tells a similar story. She was 17 when she got busted for selling drugs on Long Island. She, too, was prosecuted as an adult and spent the next year and a half in state women's prisons.
ANJELIQUE WADDINGTON: I had to become violent. I had to become evil. I had to, you know - I had to become an inmate. Like, I became a statistic - what - you know, what they wanted me to become - the system.
MANN: State officials say there are currently around 800 16- and 17-year-olds serving time in New York's adult prisons. Last January, in his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced a push to end the practice.
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ANDREW CUOMO: This is one of those issues that has gone on for a long, long time without resolution, and an issue, frankly, where we have done a lot of damage in the meantime.
MANN: Earlier this month, New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie signed on, inserting the reform plan into his proposed budget. Under the proposal, the regular age of criminal responsibility would be raised to 18, and most younger offenders would be handled in family courts.
Heastie says prosecutors would still have leeway to charge teenagers as adults in rare cases, when they're accused of what he described as the most serious violent crimes. Last week, Cuomo posted a video on Youtube showing support for the reform plan from prosecutors, sheriffs and police, including Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore and Albany City Police Chief Steve Krokoff.
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JANET DIFIORE: We need to keep youth out of adult prisons to give them a chance to succeed and turn their lives around.
STEVE KROKOFF: The system we have now isn't working.
DIFIORE: We need to change...
MANN: In the past, prison and criminal justice reform proposals have been blocked by New York's Republican-controlled State Senate, often with the backing of prosecutors and the state's prison guard union.
Those groups have stayed on the sidelines in this debate. And Betty Little, a key Republican whose upstate district includes a cluster of state and federal prisons, has endorsed Cuomo's proposal. She described locking up 16- and 17-year-olds in adult prisons as unproductive.
Charles Nunez, who went to Rikers at age 17, says he was eventually allowed to join a prison-alternative program for juveniles, an opening that eventually helped him graduate from college.
NUNEZ: Like, they gave me an opportunity to get into, like, internships - like, I started. They gave me job-training skills. Unfortunate for me, like, I had to, like, get into the criminal justice system in order to get into that program.
MANN: If this bill makes it through the legislature, as many as 1,600 teens would be diverted each year into similar programs, meaning far fewer 16- and 17-year-olds will be saddled with permanent criminal records. One lingering concern is how these new programs would be paid for. Local government leaders here issued a statement this month saying they back Cuomo's proposal, but don't want to be stuck with the bill. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York.
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