A young man who has been in trouble for much of his life faced both his greatest punishment and his greatest motivation for reform Tuesday morning.
Jason Regals, 19, of Schenectady, was sentenced to 31⁄2 years in state prison for a robbery. It was the severest penalty to date for the latest in a long line of incidents stretching back to his juvenile years, including assault, menacing and other violent acts.
But when he was marched into Judge Karen Drago’s courtroom, shackled and handcuffed, he had eyes only for the people watching from the gallery.
For the first time, he saw his newborn son, age 2 weeks. And he also got his first glimpse of his nephew, age 5 months.
His girlfriend and his sister sat through more than an hour of court cases, keeping their babies quiet, in hopes of letting him see them once before he was taken to prison. He had personally asked them to make the trip for that reason.
The court officers and attorneys were kind to the young women as they sat through the court proceedings, waiting for Regals. They admired the babies, gave Jareema Vanison advice on how to support her newborn’s neck, and praised them for keeping the babies so quiet.
It wasn’t easy, particularly for 5-month-old Kyle Gray.
“You can’t go to sleep yet! You gotta see Uncle Jay!” whispered mother Shantea Dones.
Sure enough, the tired baby let out a burbling cry. She rocked him desperately.
“Shh. Come on, stop, Uncle Jay is almost here,” she whispered.
Newborn Zi’anah Vanison-Regals was silent, her eyes wide as she took in her surroundings. For more than an hour she watched the court in quiet fascination. Her mother sighed.
“I am so sick of coming to court,” Vanison said.
But both of them were eager to show off their babies, and when Regals caught sight of them, his face brightened. He gave the babies a wide, gentle smile.
Then he was marched forward to face the judge, and his face hardened.
As Drago began to speak to him, he refused to say “ma’am” or “your honor.” He spoke curtly, angrily.
Drago wasn’t impressed.
“You have no idea how close I am to letting you take back your plea and go to trial,” she said. “At the age of 19, you have some serious anger issues.”
His demeanor changed.
“I’m learning to deal with it,” he said. “I’m learning to do what I have to do and take what I have to take.”
The judge told him she didn’t think three years in prison would help him.
“I can’t believe this is the life you want for yourself,” she said, flipping through his lengthy rap sheet. “But this has been your life.”
He said he was willing to see a counselor — which she said he should do as soon as he gets out of prison.
“Don’t wait for something to happen,” Drago said. “I truly believe until you can get your issues under control, you need to be monitored in this community.”
But she added that he has graduated from high school — which few of her young defendants have managed.
“You’ve got potential here,” she said.
And then there’s his baby daughter.
Drago told him that she would urge the prison system to get him into vocational classes.
“Hopefully you can pick up a trade so you can come out of prison a productive member of society,” she said.
Drago also directed him to get substance abuse and alcohol treatment.
He walked out, getting one last glimpse of his daughter and nephew. Again, he smiled, his face softening.
Outside, the young women said they had hope for him. Maybe he would change, in prison. Maybe he would learn a trade. Maybe he would find a way to stop his violent outbursts.
Other than that, they said, they had no words for him.
“He’s got a lot to do,” Vanison said. “She’s right, he’s got a lot of anger.”