Democratic lawmakers said Thursday they will prioritize sentencing and parole reform as their legislative agenda for next year's criminal justice reforms starts to take shape.

With the Clean Slate Act on the books to seal the records of past criminal charges, lawmakers focused on criminal justice changes in the state are making their list of which fight will take its place in 2024. But elected officials have started to wonder how the party's political appetite for significant policy changes will fare with all members of the Legislature up for reelection. 

"We really haven't accomplished sentencing reform in the years since the Rockefeller drug laws and the tough-on-crime era of the '90s," Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee chair Julia Salazar said. "And we're still seeing the harmful impacts of those changes to the law."

Salazar sponsors the Second Look Act, which allows people in prison to apply for a sentence reduction.

Advocates held concurrent rallies around the state Thursday pushing for legislation to shorten lengthy prison sentences for people behind bars, including eliminating mandatory minimum criminal sentences and creating more opportunities for people in prison to be considered for release. 

Jon Romano served 15 years in prison for firing a shotgun at Columbia High School in 2004 and wounding a teacher. He spoke at a rally in the Capitol led by the group Communities Not Cages. 

He lifted his scarred hands to show his scars after he survived a sword attack last year at a homeless shelter in Albany. Romano recounted how the Albany County district attorney's office did not notify him when his attacker pleaded guilty, and said it proves they do not care about rehabilitation of defendants or the victim.

"Where should we be putting our money? Where should we be investing?" Romano said, adding longer sentences don't prevent crimes, but generates money off the backs of incarcerated New Yorkers. "You're either anti-crime or pro-punishment because they are different things."

Romano said shorter criminal sentences will help rehabilitate incarcerated people and re-enter society more quickly.

"I say that even for the man who attacked me who tried to end my life who left me permanently disabled — my hands no longer work," he said, holding them up. "I want him to be rehabilitated."

Several lawmakers Thursday said they will prioritize sentencing and parole reforms next year to increase opportunities for people to be released from prison, like a bill to mandate hearings for New Yorkers aged 55 and older after they've served at least 15 years of their sentence.

Assemblywoman Anna Kelles sponsors the Earned Time Act to allow incarcerated people reduce their sentences with good behavior, programming or other rehabilitation.

"In return, we get a safer environment and we have people who are coming out of the carceral system ready to re-engage in society and in a way that will promote public safety," Kelles said Thursday.

The assemblywoman added the incentive to promote good behavior will reduce violence between people in prison and staff.

Looking ahead to the next budget, Salazar wants Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders to invest more money in alternatives to incarceration, and better mental health treatment and education to reduce the number of people behind bars. 

Her top priority is to pass her End Predatory Court Fees Act, or legislation to eliminate mandatory court surcharges, fines and fees.

"[They] are different from restitution to victims... but are really sort of a regressive fine imposed on people who often already can't afford to live," Salazar said. "It amounts to criminalizing poverty, in many cases.

"There is a whole agenda that I think we we are fighting for as it relates to justice for crime victims, and for people who are in the carceral system already," she continued.

But it's unclear how bold Hochul and lawmakers will be with criminal justice changes amid the critical 2024 elections, as public safety is a top concern for New York voters. 

Republican Assemblyman John McGowan is a former prosecutor who worked in Rockland and Bronx counties, and says the proposals will impact crime and contribute to the trend of people leaving the state.

"Murder, rape, robbery, theft, those types of offenses that a person is intentionally harming somebody else, I think we really have to treat those crimes differently," he said Thursday.

He's urging lawmakers to consult law enforcement and other stakeholders before enacting changes Republicans say too broadly reduce the consequences for committing a crime.

"What message are we sending in New York? We're sendig the message... we really don't take crime seriously, we don't really take criminal justice seriously," McGowan said.

Hochul in May said she was finished with further bail changes after making additional tweaks to the law in the latest budget for the second consecutive year. 

The governor will reveal details of her criminal justice agenda in her State of the State address to take place Jan. 9, and with the release of her executive budget Jan. 16.