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Caucus calls for criminal justice overhaul

Karen DeWitt

The New York State legislature’s Black, Hispanic and Asians Caucus is reacting to events in Baltimore and is calling for swift action on a package of criminal justice reforms that have been stalled in the state Senate.

The caucus members say they’ve grown weary of  incidents where African Americans die after encounters with police.  Assemblyman Michaela Blake represents portions of the Bronx.

“Baltimore is happening in the Bronx, “ Blake said. “It can happen anywhere.”

Blake says the young people involved in the riots are not thugs or criminals.

“They’re tired of feeling this injustice happen against them time and time again,” Blake said.

Blake says steps need to be taken to reverse the massive incarceration of young black men. He says more diversion is needed early, with education and job opportunities, and that New York needs to stop treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, a movement known as "raise the age." The assemblyman says the issue is personal to him. Two of his brothers have spent time in prison.

In his State of State message, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a number of criminal justice reforms , including raising the age. He also proposed lifting some of the secrecy that surrounds the grand jury process, and the creation of a special monitor to investigate cases where a citizen dies after an encounter with a police officer, and the officer is not indicted. Cuomo also is seeking more protections for police, including bullet proof glass in cruisers, and body cameras.

The items, which Cuomo originally wanted passed with the state budget, have languished in the legislature.

The caucus members say they are encouraged by Cuomo’s meeting with families of people killed in encounters with the police. Cuomo’s counsel confirmed that the governor promised he’ll issue an executive order for a federal prosecutor this summer, if the legislature does not act on his proposal for an independent monitor to investigate the incidents.  Republicans in the state Senate have resisted the idea of a special monitor, saying it’s best left to local district attorneys.  

Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thomson says she is among several Democratic senators who met with Cuomo this week.

“We are much more hopeful, certainly, today than we were last week,” Hasell-Thompson said.  

Yul-San Liem, is with the Justice Center, a group that organized the meeting between the families and the governor. She says the groups will continue to press Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor sooner, who she believes would be more effective than in independent monitor.

“We are going to keep raising our concerns about this issue with him,” said Liem , who said another meeting is planned in a month, which will include even more family members.

The caucus event comes on the same day that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech at Columbia University, where she called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, and an end to what she says is  “mass incarceration."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.