KING: As NYC makes smart decisions on criminal justice reform, Gov. Cuomo and the Senate drag their feet
Two huge battles for serious criminal justice reforms have been happening in New York. One battle that seemed like the far-fetched long shot of the two was advocating that Rikers Island, the embattled jail with a long litany of human rights abuses, be closed down once and for all. The overwhelming conclusion by onlookers was that this demand was a pipe dream at best. When I began advocating for it, many smart New Yorkers told me I was aligning myself with a losing battle.
The other reform, a change already been adopted by 48 states and on the verge of being adopted by the 49th, seemed like the no-brainer. New York is one of the last two states in the nation that hasn’t raised the standard age of criminal prosecution for crimes from 16 to 18 years of age. As it stands now, anyone 16 years or older will be tried as an adult for any and every crime they’re accused of committing. This reform appeared to be the much more realistic one to get passed.
The experts were wrong — dead wrong.
After years of hard-fought battles by grassroots activists demanding that Rikers be shut down, a blue-ribbon panel of experts determined that the smartest, most humane, just, efficient, and cost-effective solution for Rikers Island was not to reform or improve it, but to shut it down altogether. Mayor de Blasio, who had previously opposed such drastic actions, finally came on board and endorsed the radical step, all but ensuring that Rikers will eventually close. The battle is by no means over, but it has entered a crucial new phase that is now more about implementation and timelines than anything else. This victory for criminal justice reform advocates cannot be overstated.
But the lessons learned here are painful ones. Closing down Rikers Island was a pipe dream, yes, but in New York City, among reasonable, progressive voices, even a far-fetched goal like that is coming to pass. Closing Rikers Island will be amazingly difficult and complex. It won’t be quick or easy, but doing so is simply the right thing to do.
Raising the age is also the right thing to do. It’s already been done by Democrats and Republicans across the country. The blueprint for how it happens is well-worn. The research on the problematic effects of incarcerating teenagers and high school students with adults is deep and unquestioned, but here we are.
For the fifth-straight year, the state of New York, plagued by partisanship and petty bickering from the top down, just can’t find a way to pass the most basic legislation to raise the minimum age of prosecution to a national standard. It’s embarrassing, honestly. With the eyes of the world watching New York, the state is making a fool of itself. Gov. Cuomo appears to be either unable or unwilling to use his bully pulpit to force this legislation through.
But here’s the thing — basic criminal justice reforms should not be used like a political football. These aren’t pork projects benefitting just a few people or districts. Young kids and their families have their entire lives devastated because of these bad policies.
But maybe that’s the point. Too many politicians are aloof. They either aren’t connected to the real effects of the worst criminal justice policies or simply don’t care. Whatever the reality, the net effect is not only political paralysis, it’s more and more people’s lives ruined. This political paralysis has a human cost.
New York City accepted this reality and decided it simply was not willing to bear the human costs of Rikers Island any longer. It’s one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever seen a city make. With the New York State budget in limbo, and Gov. Cuomo seemingly unwilling to use much more political capital on the matter, it appears increasingly likely that Raise The Age may be delayed for yet a sixth year. This isn’t just sad, it’s malfeasance.
Shame on every politician unable and unwilling to pull this off.