Senate Democrats brace for battle in juvenile justice reform

ANNA GRONEWOLD

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers are gearing up for another clash over state law that treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the justice system.

Senate Democrats on Monday called for the state to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 next year and to avoid "watered-down" compromises from Republicans or Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo that could limit or delay the increase.

"Our children deserve real action on this issue," Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. "The state government needs to raise the age, but it has to be more than slowly and it has to be more than a way to score political points or headlines."

New York and North Carolina are the only two states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in criminal court. Child advocates say imprisoning teenagers alongside adult offenders does not encourage rehabilitation and does not include the parental or community involvement that youth need to avoid future convictions.

Democrats are urging their colleagues to embrace their proposal, which would direct most crimes committed by people 18 and younger to family court beginning January 2018. Cuomo has included "Raise the Age" reform in his $152 billion budget recommendations, but his proposal would stagger age increases slowly until reaching 18 in 2020. The governor's plan would also exclude violent crimes and some traffic and vehicle violations from family court.

Brooklyn Democrat Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who has carried Raise the Age legislation since 2012, said Cuomo's proposal is an alternative but does not advocate for the state's estimated 28,000 16- and 17-year-old offenders in the most efficient way.

"Delaying a vote and trying to water down this widely supported legislation will simply do harm to our kids, and in fact to me and to us, is cruel and unacceptable," Montgomery said.

Montgomery said she is confident Cuomo will approve their version of the bill if it can pass both Senate and Assembly first.

In previous years, similar legislation has faced opposition from Republicans and district attorneys who say raising the age is unnecessary because the state's criminal justice system has built-in protections for young offenders.