Sentencing Commission Calls for Reform
The New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform today outlined several major preliminary recommendations to improve the state’s current sentencing structure, calling for a more simplified and streamlined system focused on public safety, consistency and fairness.
In a preliminary report to the governor, legislative leaders and Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, the Commission detailed several important reform proposals. This represents the first time in over 40 years that New York’s sentencing laws have undergone a thorough and comprehensive review.
“Our failure to comprehensively reform our sentencing laws has resulted today in an overly complex, Byzantine system that is fraught with opportunities for injustice,” said Denise E. O’Donnell, chairwoman of the Commission, commissioner of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, and assistant secretary to the governor for criminal justice. “Today, we have outlined a way to go forward that will help improve a sentencing system that has often become virtually unintelligible to prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants and crime victims alike.”
Some of the Commission’s major recommendations include:
- Abandoning New York’s indeterminate sentencing system and creating new determinate sentences for more than 200 non-violent felonies. Currently, New York employs a combination of fixed (or “determinate”) sentences and more variable “indeterminate” sentences, where a judge imposes a prison term with a minimum and maximum term, and the parole board decides when the offender is actually released. Under New York’s “hybrid” sentencing structure, defendants, crime victims and even judges often leave the courtroom with only a general understanding of how long an offender will actually spend behind bars.
- Modifying New York’s sentencing statutes to expressly permit a court to sentence certain non-violent drug-addicted felony offenders to community-based treatment in lieu of state prison when the judge, prosecutor and defendant all agree that this is a just outcome.
- Examining the broader use of “graduated sanctions” – such as curfews, home confinement, electronic monitoring and re-entry courts – to help end the “revolving door” of incarceration for certain offenders under parole supervision who violate one or more conditions of parole but commit no new crime.
- Enacting new laws, and better enforcing existing statutes, to further protect victims of crime and enhance their right to have a meaningful voice in the criminal justice process.
- Expanding prison-based educational and vocational training, enhancing employment and housing opportunities and utilizing other cost-effective measures designed to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.
- Establishing a permanent sentencing commission to serve as an advisory body to the legislative and executive branches.
In its report, the Commission concluded that piecemeal attempts at reforming New York’s sentencing structure have created a situation that is a model for the “law of seemingly unintended consequences.” As just one example, the Crimes Against Police Act, which was enacted to increase penalties imposed on those who attack law enforcement officers, imposes on a repeat felony offender convicted of certain crimes against police or peace officers a less severe penalty than that imposed on a first-time offender convicted of the same crime.
The Commission, however, stressed that while New York’s sentencing structure is ripe for major revision, the state has achieved dramatic decreases in crime. A recent report from the FBI shows that New York is the safest large state in the nation and the fifth safest overall. Additionally, New York is the only large state to see a consistent decrease in crime, offender recidivism and prison population over the last several years.
The 11-member Commission includes criminal justice experts as well as representatives from the prosecution, defense, legislative, victim and judicial communities.
Commission member Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a partner at Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Jason, Anello & Bohrer, a law firm in New York City, said: “The report recognizes the primary importance of maintaining public safety, and suggests sound changes in policy and programs to achieve effective probation and parole supervision, reduce recidivism, protect victims’ rights and prepare offenders for re-entry into society.”
Brian Fischer, a member of the panel and the commissioner of the state Department of Correctional Services, said: “The Sentencing Commission’s report is a very positive first step in an ongoing process to improve the criminal justice system that affects so many New Yorkers. The Commission’s goal was to begin to address issues that too often have led to confusion and at times the appearance of inequity. The ultimate purpose of the Commission is to provide everyone with a better understanding of the system so that we can enhance public safety.”
Commission member Michael P. McDermott, a partner at the law firm of O’Connell and Aronowitz in Albany, said: “This preliminary report represents the concerted efforts of the Commission members to cut through the thicket of New York’s current criminal sentencing laws and blaze a path toward a more logical and coherent system.”
Tina M. Stanford, chairwoman of the state Crime Victims Board and a member of the sentencing panel, said the Commission was committed to “following Governor Spitzer’s mandate to include consideration of public safety and the rights of innocent victims of crime in our effort to recommend sentencing reform that is constructive, comprehensive and just.”
Commissioner Anthony Bergamo, chairman of the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation, said it “is a privilege to be associated with my fellow commissioners and to have an opportunity to work on this sensitive and timely issue that has a great impact on our society.”
Senator Eric T. Schneiderman, a member of the Commission, applauded the recommendations on expanding alternatives to incarceration and improving re-entry services.
“Our draft report goes beyond anything we have ever attempted in New York State in these critical areas,” Schneiderman said. “However, as we move forward toward a final report, we still have a lot of work to do in our efforts to reform New York’s draconian drug laws. There are thousands of families, in my district and across New York State, suffering unnecessarily because of our antiquated drug sentencing structure. We currently spend millions of dollars on unduly long sentences that neither reduce recidivism nor reduce drug crime.”
Judge Juanita Bing Newton, the deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives and a Commission member, said: “Sentencing reform is an important topic for the people of New York, and the opportunity to make real change is now. Working with each and every member of the Sentencing Reform Commission has been a privilege, and I look forward to continuing to work together as we bring to life the recommendations that are enclosed in the preliminary report.”
Governor Spitzer established the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform through Executive Order No. 10 on March 5, 2007 to conduct a comprehensive review of New York’s “current sentencing structure, sentencing practices.” The Commission will release its final recommendations and report next year, incorporating feedback from future public hearings.