A February weekend is a funny time for Albany to lock itself behind oaken conference room doors to Make Law. But this is an election year. So, last weekend Assembly Democrats were hard at work, speeding through a bill they hope will portray them as a rugged posse out to hunt down teenage criminals.
Albany sources tell City Limits that State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ordered the rare weekend bill drafting session to get the jump on state Senate Republicans before they could release their own overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system. A vote on the measure was expected sometime today. “We’ll be working the weekend,” said one tired legislative hand on Friday. “There’s an election coming up.”
The new assembly bill—-which was still being kept under wraps on Friday afternoon-—will reportedly look a lot like last year’s doomed Assembly bill, sponsored by the speaker, Brooklynite Roger Green and Manhattan liberal Steve Sanders. That measure drew criticism from advocates for imposing harsh new adult sanctions on juvenile criminals arrested on weapons possession charges and proposing to build a new maximum-security juvenile prison which opponents say isn’t needed.
Both provisions are expected to be in today’s bill. But even so, this measure is far milder than versions introduced by the conservative Republican state Senate leadership and Gov. George Pataki. The 1998 versions of those bills, which still have to be approved by senate committees, would mandate that all juvenile offenders be shipped off to adult prisons on their sixteenth birthday. The GOP proposals would also nearly double the number of children taken out of family courts to be tried in adult courts, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future, City Limits’ sister policy institute. Critics of the plan say it will increase the incentive for the state to place more kids behind bars-—and fewer teens in effective alternative-to-incarceration programs. “The assembly plan’s better than the Republican’s bill, but it’s got big problems too,” said Darlene Jorif of the Correctional Association of New York, a progressive policy group.
The assembly’s rush to legislate may indicate that Silver, who has been targeted by the GOP as being soft on criminal justice issues, is serious about reaching a compromise with the Senate. “It is going to become a law this year,” predicted Joel Copperman, executive director of CASES, an alternative- to- incarceration program for young lawbreakers.
Sources close to the negotiations say that the GOP may soften some of its positions and slate additional funding for programs Silver supports, including new money for mental health and drug treatment services, youth training programs and teen boot camps.