C&S: 'Raise the Age' Remains on NY's Back Burner

NYAPRS Note: New York State may remain one of 2 states in the nation to try those under 18 as adults. NYAPRS will continue to work closely with other advocates and staff officials to rectify this outrageous policy.

Criminal Justice Reform Remains Stuck On Legislative Back Burner

By Justin Sondel City & State May 31, 2016|

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out his agenda for this year’s legislative session, he sounded a familiar drumbeat on the need for criminal justice reform, from raising the age of criminal responsibility to preventive programming to reforming prisons.

While he was able to fund some of the programs he pointed to as measures to help keep people from entering the system - community schools, urban youth jobs programs, diversion programs - most of the major legislative issues remain unresolved and key lawmakers say they may have to wait until next year.

One such issue is the “Raise the Age” legislation that has stalled in the Legislature in recent years. New York remains one of only two states in the nation where people under the age of 18 are tried as adults.

Through an executive order last year, Cuomo ended the practice of housing 16- and 17-year-olds in the general prison population, but the broader law remains the same.

Abbey Fashouer, a Cuomo administration spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the governor’s office will continue to push for reforms as the session winds down.

“The Governor is committed to reforming the state’s criminal justice system and has advanced a number of initiatives, including raising the age of criminal responsibility, to do just that,” Fashouer said. “We urge the State Legislature to Raise the Age this year and join us in creating a fairer, more balanced justice system for all New Yorkers.”

Brooklyn Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Democrat who is chairman of the Codes Committee, said that with the many priorities still on the table as the session winds down, he believes the legislation will have little chance of passing this year.

If that is the case, Lentol said he will come back next year just as committed to getting the bill passed into law.

“We’re going to still continue to fight for that bill,” Lentol said.

While Lentol believes Cuomo’s executive order is a step in the right direction, he said the Legislature needs to make sure that children in that age group are not treated as adults by the court system.

“I think we have to start by making it a permanent process so that we follow the rest of the states in the nation and we’re not lagging behind, and treating children like children instead of adults that committed crimes,” Lentol said.

State Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican who is chairman of the Correction Committee, also thinks the debate over the age of criminal responsibility may not gain the attention it would need to come to the floor for a vote.

Gallivan, a former Erie County sheriff, said that the opioid addiction crisis may take up the lion’s share of legislators’ attention in these final weeks of the session.

“I think it becomes a priority, not just of the Senate, but of the governor’s office and the Legislature, to try to deal with this crisis we’re facing in communities across the state,” Gallivan said.

Both legislators also pointed to a number of bills that have been put forth in an effort to prevent wrongful convictions.

Lentol is pushing for a requirement that custodial interviews be videotaped and for “double-blind” identification of suspects, which he said could go a long way toward preventing the horror stories of people losing decades of their lives to bad policing policy.

“We should be trying to even come to grips with the issues that can prevent wrongful convictions instead of correcting them after they’ve happened,” Lentol said.

Gallivan said that while these issues were often contentious in the past, activists, law enforcement officials and legislators have come together in recent years to work toward solutions.

“I think if we ultimately deal with anything it would be dealing with things or discussing things in those particular areas,” Gallivan said.

Another of Gallivan’s priorities that looks unlikely to be addressed is safety in prisons. With violence and contraband on the rise in prisons across New York and the escape of two inmates from Clinton Correctional Facility last summer, Gallivan had hoped to see more movement in this area.

However, with the state Inspector General’s report on the prison escape yet to be released and so many other priorities on the table, Gallivan does not see those issues being resolved this session either, he said.

“We’re waiting on (the Inspector General’s report) before, I think, there are going to be any meaningful positive changes proposed as it relates to the department of corrections,” Gallivan said.