CENTRAL HARLEM— After more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts by lawmakers and juvenile justice advocates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially signed a bill into law Monday that would prevent all 16- and 17-year-olds from automatically being charged as adults in New York, no matter the crime.
“This was a hard one. This was difficult to do,” Cuomo said at the bill’s signing in Harlem, where surrounded by prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the brother of Kalief Browder.
“We’ve been talking about this for 12 years. Every year everyone would set their hopes high and every year the bill would die.”
The bill ended New York's status as one of only two states that prosecuted all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. North Carolina is the other.
This latest iteration of the bill hit a brief roadblock after budget negotiations by legislators fell apart last week as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle negotiated specific details in the bill.
Cuomo said he “forged compromise” with lawmakers to include the bill in the budget.
“This [bill] says that a 16- or 17-year-old who makes a mistake is a 16-, 17-year-old that makes a mistake,” he said, saying diversion programs and rehabilitation are key for younger offenders.
Sharpton also joined Cuomo to applaud the bill’s passage, saying that signing it in Harlem — “a community that has been disproportionately harmed by what came before” — was “historic.”
Cuomo said the bill would also seal the records of juveniles if they commit no crimes over a 10-year period and retroactively seal records of the formerly incarcerated going back 10 years who have maintained a clean criminal record over that time, affecting 12,000 New Yorkers, he said, citing other provisions.
In the past, the state’s district attorneys have had discretion over which cases are referred to Family Court and those prosecuted in adult criminal courts.
The bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18-years-old, send 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to Family Court, and create a “youth part” in adult Criminal Court for nonviolent cases that would give prosecutors discretion to send to Family Court unless they find “extraordinary circumstances.”
Violent offenses could also remain in the “youth part” if the offender passes a three-prong test: Did the juvenile cause significant physical injury? Did the offender use a deadly a weapon? Was it a sex crime?
It would also stop 16- and 17-year-olds from being placed in adult jail or prison.
The governor also said that next year, all 16- and 17-year-olds on Rikers Island will be required to be removed under the measure, taking shots at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shut down the jail over the next 10 years.
“Don’t tell me it takes 10 years to fix that abomination,” he said, before referencing the case of Kalief Browder, who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent three years at the jail and committed suicide after his release in 2015.
Browder’s brother, Akeem, who was also in attendance, thanked the governor and wiped away tears as Cuomo signed the bill.
“It’s not Arkansas or some state in the middle of the country… it’s New York State, New York City, the most progressive capital of the world, the most liberal people in America," Cuomo said.
“And finally when I sign that piece of paper — no more.”