PROVIDENCE - State lawmakers are expected to meet today to consider repealing a recently enacted law that sends 17-year-old criminal offenders to adult courts and prisons, but key legislators remain divided on the proposal.
The repeal is among several items the Democrat-dominated General Assembly will consider during a special session called primarily to overturn vetoes issued by Governor Don Carcieri, a Republican.
Child advocates and civil libertarians have criticized Carcieri and lawmakers for approving with little scrutiny a poorly researched plan to treat 17-year-old offenders as adults. The change has confused judges and 17 year olds who now find themselves in prison instead of being released to their parents or in rehabilitation offered in juvenile courts.
"We've been getting a lot of pressure about this," said Representative Joseph Almeida, Democrat of Providence. "I don't know anybody who's for sending a kid to prison."
In June, as lawmakers struggled to close a $450 million deficit, Carcieri's administration proposed sending 17-year-olds to the state prison, where it costs $40,000 annually per prisoner on average - $58,000 less than at the State Training School, a juvenile detention center.
Carcieri's administration never consulted with prison officials and failed to find out that teenagers at the state prison are kept in protective custody, which costs several thousand dollars more per year than the training school.
A proposal to be considered today by the House Finance Committee to put 17-year-olds back in the juvenile justice system has passed the Senate. It includes language that would discourage judges and the state's child welfare agency from detaining all but the most serious offenders in the training school.
"This is an opportunity to do something right," said Jametta Alston, the state's child advocate, who has warned lawmakers that teenagers do not belong in adult prisons.
At a minimum, Almeida said he and others want to revert to the old system, where 17-year-olds are treated as minors. But he said some lawmakers were worried about provisions that could make it more difficult to put teenage offenders in the training school.
Representative Steven Costantino, the finance committee chairman, wanted assurances that the Senate's plan would not prove more expensive for a state now facing a $200 million budget shortfall. So far, sending 17-year-olds to the adult prison has saved some money, he said.
Still, Costantino said he was troubled that 17-year-olds convicted of crimes could enter adulthood with a criminal record, an obstacle to getting a job or securing federal student loans. Family Court records are largely hidden from public view.