Fortunately, there is an opportunity for New York to save itself from that dubious distinction. In the coming days, the State Senate will vote on a budget that should include measures to “Raise the Age” of criminal liability for 16 and 17-year-old children.
For the past five years, the state debated but failed to pass these reforms. In order for that to happen this year, it will require quick action from Gov. Cuomo, who proposed the policy change in his 2017 budget and received national attention as a potential 2020 candidate for president.
It is not just New York’s reputation that hangs in the balance. Democrats across the country are looking for a hero. The fate of this important measure and the lives of thousands of young people across the state hang in the balance. Gov. Cuomo can make a real impact if he moves quickly.
The measures being discussed would have saved Kalief Browder’s life. At age 16, Kalief was arrested for allegedly stealing a bookbag. When his family could not afford $3,000 in bail, he ended up in Rikers Island where he was tortured, beaten and placed in solitary confinement. He tried to take his own life multiple times before succeeding on June 6, 2015, at only age 22. Literally heartbroken, his mother, Venida, passed away this past fall after multiple heart attacks.
So much of this tragedy could have been avoided simply by keeping a young man like Browder out of criminal court in the first place.
Despite advocates’ best efforts, Raise the Age reforms are at risk of being watered down and turned into a press release for politicians instead of offering promise to young people. Republicans and the Independent Democrats Caucus are blowing gaping holes in the measure by sending young people accused of some non-violent felonies to criminal court, anyway.
There are other important policy disagreements about the sealing of records, the presumption of Youthful Offender status, and parental notification — all backed by progressive Democrats and opposed by the GOP and the Independent Democratic Caucus.
Gov. Cuomo should sit down with the Independent Democratic Caucus, Senate Republicans and immediately hash out a deal that avoids playing politics with young people’s lives. He should make it absolutely clear that in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, all kids under 18 should be sent to family court – no exceptions.
In contrast, New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first black speaker in New York State history, has insisted that he will not go down in history simply for that distinction. He wants to leave behind a legacy of delivering real criminal justice reform, including raising the age the right way.
Sometimes, it is not enough to make big promises. When the bright lights of the presidential stage hit, sometimes you have to take big risks to deliver big results. Gov. Cuomo should step in and save these reforms. If he does so successfully, he may pass his first big presidential test.
Jessica Jackson Sloan is the National Director of #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails, while keeping communities safe.
Van Jones is co-founder of #cut50, president of The Dream Corps and a CNN political contributor.