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New York State’s Chief Judge Calls for Important Reforms

This past Wednesday, Chief Judge Lippman gave his annual State of the Judiciary address, “Let Justice Be Done,” setting an ambitious agenda, including changing how and 16 and 17 years olds are treated in the judicial system and reforming the bail process. The Red Hook Community Justice Center and the Center for Court Innovation are helping the judiciary meet those goals through some of our latest programs.

The Chief Judge wants to change the way 16 and 17 year olds are treated in New York’s judicial system. New York is one of only two states in the country that prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults. Every year, over 40,000 16 and 17 year olds are arrested in New York State, most for minor offenses. Studies show that 16 and 17 year olds do not have the same brain development and decision-making maturity as adults. We also know that most of these young offenders do not become adult offenders, but are at risk of being burdened with an adult criminal record for a foolish act they committed as a teen. For the past year, the Red Hook Community Justice Center and nine other sites around the states have piloted a new program called the Adolescent Diversion Program, which brought the best aspects of the criminal and family court systems together to more adequately handle these cases. Based on the success of the Adolescent Diversion Program, the Chief Judge wants to expand the approach across the state in a new Youth Division that will provide: full procedural protections for youth whose cases are not adjusted; no criminal records; and enhanced services and alternative-to-incarceration programs.

The bail reform movement, led in part by Herb Sturz starting in the 1960s in New York City, helped usher in many reforms that transformed New York’s justice system. These reforms led to the creation of organizations like the Vera Institute ofJustice and the Center forCourt Innovation.

Now Judge Lippman is calling on New York to finish what it started 50 years ago to achieve sensible bail reform. In almost every other state, judges are required to consider public safety when making a bail determination. However, in New York, judges are not permitted to do so. Defendants are only screened for their risk of failure to appear in court, not for their risk of committing a new crime. This results in the risk of dangerous defendants being put back in the streets. Judge Lippman wants to ensure that the state’s goal, “must be to ensure that pre-trial detention is reserved only for those defendants who cannot safely be released or who cannot be relied upon to return to court.” The state must also ensure that it is not unfairly incarcerating indigent defendants simply because they cannot meet minimum bail requirements, which essentially punishes defendants for being poor. KingsCounty District Attorney Charles Hynes, highlighted the Justice Center’s bail practices as one model for bail reform.

Chief Judge Lippman is also calling for reforms to expand supervised release. Incarcerating a defendant awaiting trial is very expensive. Currently, Nearly 30,000 people are held in New York State local Jails. On average, it costs $19,000 per person to incarcerate a defendant awaiting trial. An alternative is a supervised release program, which allows a defendant to safely stay in their community, while being monitored. This alternative costs about $3,000 - $4,600. The Center for Court Innovation will help develop a supervised release program for New York City that will target misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial who are held because they cannot meet minimum bail amounts.

These reforms can hopefully spark the innovation needed to make New York’s justice system more just, improve public safety, and save tax payers money.  

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