This year’s legislative session began on Wednesday in Albany with a commitment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of both legislative chambers to change the statute of limitations for cases of child sex abuse and pass comprehensive criminal justice reform this year.
Cuomo, during a conversation with reporters at the state Capitol, said he wants lawmakers to come to an agreement sooner rather than later on the Child Victims Act, which would raise both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations in cases of child sex abuse.
“Certain advocacy groups push one way or the other,” Cuomo said. “But on these things I think it’s more important to get it done. Let’s focus on the commonality and how to get it done rather than focus on the differences.”
Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who sponsors the bill in the Senate, has said the legislation will be among his top priorities this year. There’s new momentum behind the legislation this year after Democrats took the majority in the State Senate for the first time in eight years.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, who was elected the first-ever female majority leader in the chamber on Wednesday, said her conference will continue to support the legislation in the new year.
“We will stand up for victims of child sexual abuse and finally pass the Child Victims Act,” Stewart-Cousins said.
The measure has previously passed in the Democrat-led State Assembly, where it’s been sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said he’s planning to bring the legislation up for a vote again this year, when it will presumably pass.
“For children who were victims of sexual predators, let them finally be able to bring their abusers to justice,” Heastie said.
The measure, as it’s currently written, would raise the criminal statute of limitations in cases of child sex abuse to age 28 and the civil statute of limitations to age 50. It would also enact a one-year look-back window to allow people outside the statute of limitations to bring civil litigation for up to a year after the legislation is passed. The latter part of the legislation has been the most controversial.
Discussions on the bill between Democrats from both houses remain ongoing. There have been proposals to raise the statutes of limitations even higher through the legislation, or eliminate it altogether in the case of civil litigation. Hoylman has said he’s open to changing the legislation before committing to one final bill to send to the Senate floor.
Cuomo told reporters on Wednesday that he wanted to see the look-back window remain in the legislation, which could very well end up as part of the state budget in March.
“You need a look-back window. I’m basically in line with where the Assembly bill is,” Cuomo said.
Heastie and Stewart-Cousins also highlighted their planned efforts to reform the state’s bail system, enact discovery reform, and change the state’s laws related to speedy trial. Democrats have yet to coalesce around one proposal for any of those reforms, but Stewart-Cousins said they are among her conference’s top priorities over the next six months.
“We are going to reform our criminal justice system and pass bail reform, speedy trial and ensure our system treats everyone equally,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Heastie, during his remarks, thanked the sponsors of legislation that would change bail, discovery, and the state’s speedy trial laws. Assemblyman Joe Lentol, D-Brooklyn, who chairs the chamber’s Codes Committee, carries a bill that would require more transparency from prosecutors throughout the discovery process, for example.
“Every defendant has the right to a level playing field by knowing what evidence is considered in relation to the charges against him,” Heastie said. “Thank you again Uncle Joe for leading the way on discovery reform.”
Heastie also had kind words for the sponsors of bills that would reform the state’s bail system and shorten the length of time a defendant has to wait before their trial begins. The latter bill, called Kalief’s Law, would prevent prosecutors from asking for an indefinite delay of a defendant’s trial date by instead tying readiness to the discovery process.
The legislation is named after Kalief Browder, a Bronx man who committed suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island, a prison in New York City, waiting for his trial on robbery charges. The charges were dropped before a trial date was set.
“To Assemblyman [Jeffrion] Aubry, the godfather of criminal justice reform, leading the way on speedy trial known as ‘Kalief’s Law’ and solitary confinement even before the tragedy of Kalief Browder, who was treated unjustly by our criminal justice system,” Heastie said. “Thank you, Jeff.”
The challenge for Democrats going forward will be to decide how exactly they want to reform the state’s criminal justice laws. Some Democrats, for example, disagree about the methods of ending cash bail and whether judges should have more or less discretion in deciding whether to keep a defendant in state custody.
Discovery reform, the lesser-known issue tied to both bail reform and speedy trial, may be even trickier to resolve. Some Democrats support what’s known as open file discovery, which would essentially require prosecutors to provide a complete copy of evidence they intend to use well ahead of a defendant’s trial date.
Other Democrats have supported more clear-cut deadlines, such as a requirement for prosecutors to disclose discoverable material within 90 days of an individual’s arraignment. That proposal is also supported by the New York State Bar Association.
It’s possible criminal justice reform and the Child Victims Act could be included in the state budget later during the session. It’s common for Cuomo and lawmakers to lump several different policy measures in with the state spending plan, which is due at the end of March.
Lawmakers are expected to begin hearings on the state budget later this month.