April 10, 2017: New York State Bar Association Praises Criminal Justice Reforms in the State Budget

“The state budget is a triumph for the cause of justice in New York,” New York State Bar Association President Claire P. Gutekunst said today.

She pointed to four measures that long have been Association legislative priorities and that NYSBA leaders and staff have consistently lobbied legislators to adopt: combating wrongful conviction; raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18; a commitment to improving indigent criminal defense services; and sealing certain criminal records.

“We applaud Governor Cuomo and the Legislature for enacting these sensible criminal justice measures that will enhance the fairness of and public trust in our criminal justice system,” Gutekunst said.

Wrongful Conviction

A 2009 report by the New York State Bar Association, which identified major factors contributing to wrongful convictions, recommended video recording of custodial interrogations and changing procedures for eyewitness identification of suspects.

Largely adopting provisions in a bill drafted in 2015 by the State Bar Association in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the District Attorneys’ Association of New York, the budget agreement calls for both video recording of custodial interrogations of suspects in serious crimes and reforming procedures for eyewitness identification.

“This measure is a victory for the innocent and for public safety. Each time an innocent person goes to prison, the guilty person is free to commit another crime,” Gutekunst said. 

Raising the Age

New York has been one of only two states that prosecutes 16-year-old children as adults. The age of criminal responsibility was set at 16 in 1962 on a “tentative” basis so it could be further studied. The Association has long urged policymakers to raise the age to 18.

The measure approved this week accomplishes that goal over a two-year period. When the bill is fully implemented, children under 18 charged with nonviolent crimes would no longer be treated as adults in our criminal justice system. Instead, those children would be referred to Family Court and would receive counseling and support services and, if deemed appropriate, would be sent to juvenile facilities rather than adult prisons and jails.

“The measure recognizes what researchers have documented— and many parents have observed— that 16- and 17-year-olds often lack the maturity and judgment to understand the legal consequences of their impulsive behaviors,” Gutekunst said. “A guiding hand can set a child on the path to becoming a responsible adult rather than a repeat offender.”

Indigent criminal defense

With the state budget, the state government has recognized its responsibility to provide constitutionally mandated criminal legal defense services for people who cannot afford an attorney.

It sets in motion the development of written plans by the Office of Indigent Legal Services to expand the improvements required by the Hurrell-Harring settlement beyond the initial five counties to the entire state.

“As an association representing the legal profession, we are pleased that state policymakers recognized that providing indigent defense services is a societal obligation that should be paid for out of the state’s General Fund and rejected a proposal to partly pay for those services with a $50 increase in the biennial attorney registration fee, which would have been an unfair surcharge on lawyers,” Gutekunst said.

Sealing criminal records

The budget allows individuals who have maintained a clean record for a 10-year period to apply to a court to have records of certain previous criminal convictions sealed.

“The consequences of a conviction can follow an individual for a lifetime, making it harder to successfully integrate back into the community. Providing the opportunity to have the records of certain past crimes sealed gives individuals a second chance and an incentive to turn around their lives,” Gutekunst said.

The 72,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.

Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen
Director, Media Services
lbang-jensen@nysba.org
518-487-5530