Activists and religious leaders are calling for the age of criminal responsibility to be increased in New York State. Geoff Redick has more on what they have to say from Albany.
ALBANY, N.Y. — Among the issues that may become signatures of the 2017 legislative session is New York's "Raise the Age" movement, which got a big boost Wednesday in the Assembly.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie alluded to the issue while laying out his priorities for the session, during a paragraph about criminal justice reform.
"Today, 16- and 17-year-olds are still being sentenced to adult correctional facilities, where they do not belong," Heastie told his colleagues. "It is time our partners in government join us in passing and enacting a measure to move these cases to family court, where they belong."
Earlier Wednesday, a group of clergy and activists rallied inside the Capitol War Room in support of a measure to prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as juvenile offenders.
"This is morally wrong," said the group's leader, decrying the fact that only New York and North Carolina prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adult criminal offenders.
"The system is broken from start to finish, and putting youth through that system is morally wrong," he continued.
The director of New York's Interfaith Impact group, Robb Smith, echoed the sentiment.
"These teenagers are not adults, and they should not be treated as adults," said Smith. "We know a lot more about human development and psychology now than we did a hundred years ago."
The effort has varying levels of support in the Assembly, which has passed similar measures over the last several years.
"Don't get me wrong; we're not talking about murder," said John McDonald, a Democrat who supports 'Raise the Age' with caveats for serious, violent crimes.
"There are crimes that deserve a punishment including prison time," McDonald said, "but nowhere near to the level of what's been done in the past."
Republicans in the Assembly are not likely to defeat the measure, but may wield some influence since their party holds a majority in the State Senate.
"Many people in this chamber view it as a gang recruitment act, a free pass to family court," said vocal Republican Steve McLaughlin. "Maybe there's some middle ground that we can get to, but to blanket this and say anybody 16 and 17 years old is gonna end up in family court ... it doesn't necessarily sit well with everybody."
Senate majority leader John Flanagan used the "Raise the Age" issue in his session-opening remarks Wednesday, but pivoted to promote job creation as a method of keeping youth from the criminal justice system.
Any measure passed by both houses must be signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who first proposed "Raise the Age" in 2014 after appointing a commission to review youthful incarceration. Amid an impasse over the issue in 2015, Cuomo used an executive order to separate 16- and 17-year-old convicts into segregated housing, away from the adult prison population.
Last month, Cuomo commuted the sentences of hundreds of youthful offenders.