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Dispute over higher penalties for retail theft is one of many issues making the state budget late again

This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.
Hans Pennink
/
Associated Press file photo
This file photo shows the New York state Capitol in Albany.

New York state lawmakers are on a four-day break for the Easter holidays, while they let the budget deadline pass. One of many sticking points remaining in the spending plan is how to crack down on growing instances of retail theft. 

Governors in New York often include unrelated policy items in their state budget proposals, and Kathy Hochul is no exception. That’s when they have the most leverage with the legislature to get their agenda approved. 

Hochul is proposing new stiffer penalties for retail theft including making it a felony to assault a store employee. She held a news conference with small retail store owners earlier in March. 

“These individuals are very exposed, especially in a small shop with just one worker. They don't have any way to protect themselves. They're literally on the front line,” Hochul said. “And under this law, assaulting a retail worker would carry the same elevated penalties that we have in place for assaulting a first responder.” 

It’s part of a $45 million plan that includes authorizing the state police to investigate and prosecute interstate and international organized retail theft rings. Hochul wants to spend $25 million of that amount to hire more troopers. 

But Democrats in the Senate and Assembly are reluctant to increase criminal penalties. Neither house included the new criminal penalties in their budget plans. 

Both leaders of the legislature are African-American, and they have said repeatedly that are wary of any criminal justice law changes that could disproportionately impact Black and Brown New Yorkers. 

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that there are better ways to reduce retail theft, like providing funds for stores to hire more security. 

“What we are trying to do is figure out ways that we can really cut into this retail theft, the organized retail theft,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And also help retail establishments to be able to bolster their security, and help local police forces to help retailers to be able to abate the crime. So, I think you know, we are all very serious about this. And again, we don't want any worker hurt anywhere.” 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in the past, raising penalties for certain crimes has not decreased the rate of their occurrence. He said it’s more important to look at the root causes of crime, like improving the education system and better mental health treatment.

“I’m open to talking about the organized crime rings that people have, but I just don't believe raising penalties is ever a deterrent on crime,” the Speaker said. “You stop anybody in the street and ask them what is the penalty for assaulting anybody, and they'll probably won't even be able to answer you.” 

Senator Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie backed the 2019 bail reform laws. They did agree in last year’s final budget deal to include Hochul’s proposal to alter that law, and they added back some crimes to the list of felonies that are bail eligible.

There’s also a larger political context playing out in state budget talks. 

The 2024 elections will feature several hotly contested Congressional races. Democrats are looking to win back four seats that flipped to Republicans in 2022. Suburban voters will be key in those races, and polls have shown that rising crime is a key concern. 

The head of the state Republican Party, Ed Cox, is already highlighting the dispute. In a statement, Cox took issue with Heastie’s opposition to raising criminal penalties, saying the “comments illustrate the Democrats’ moral rot.”
 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.