Criminal Justice Reform in New York


In the late 90’s, New York, like most other states, experienced a surge in the prison population due to the nation’s “Tough on Crime” attitude, aimed to curb the staggeringly-high crime rate. In 1999, it’s prison population reached its peak, and by 2016, it was reduced by 31%. Because of mandatory drug sentencing laws, low-level drug offenders and parole violators comprised the bulk of New York’s prison population.


In 1999, New York law enforcement shifted its focus from low-level offenders to bigger priorities; thus, felony drug arrests dropped, causing the overall prison population to decrease. In doing so, drug treatment programs became alternatives to incarceration and probation terms were shortened, loosening restrictions that made it otherwise easy for parolees to violate. A merit time program was also established, allowing for non-violent offenders to earn sentence reductions and become eligible for parole earlier by completing certain vocational programs. And in the early 2000’s mandatory minimums were shortened, further making it possible for offenders to minimize their sentences and prisons to reduce their populations.

More recently, New York legislated several other pieces of criminal justice reform:

  • In 2017, lawmakers passed legislation that raises the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.
  • In 2018, legislators passed a criminal justice reform package that reworks bail and pretrial detention policies so that they enforce freedom before trial Improves access to a speedy trial; proposes to require a conviction before seizing property; and enhances the re-entry process by removing bans on occupational licensing, broadening release opportunities, and reducing monetary obligations upon release.
  • In 2019, New York passed legislation that eliminates the requirement of cash bail for certain offenses. This bill prevents people from being sent to pretrial detention solely because they are unable to pay bail.


These reforms help redirect cases from the criminal court system every year, save close to 10,000 people annually from having a permanent criminal record for minor offenses, and avoid the issuance of over 50,000 warrants each year. They uphold that individuals are held innocent until proven guilty, and allow for incarcerated individuals to earn shorter sentences, get the substance abuse treatment they need, become educated through vocational training, and re-enter society without tremendous financial debt. New York’s commitment to improving the criminal justice system has paid off, making New York a great role model for other states looking to enact criminal justice reform.

Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.