Criminal Law Reforms Proposed in Landmark Report

September 24, 2013 5:33 pm Last Updated: September 24, 2013 5:33 pm

NEW YORK—A state task force released a set of reform recommendations on Sept. 24 meant to strengthen key criminal laws. The reforms are meant to help prosecutors fight modern crimes under penal laws that have not been updated since 1965.

Piecemeal updates have been made over decades, including a significant revision to white-collar crime laws under Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1986. That was seven years before the birth of the Internet and two decades before a surge of cybercrime and identity theft.

“It’s not to say that New York state has made no effort to address some areas of concern,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said. “The Legislature has passed a number of ‘boutique’ statutes. They largely add slivers of narrow criminal conduct. But in reality those laws have turned out less effective than anticipated.”

The task force’s report recommends reforms that the state Legislature should enact in areas of procedural laws, cybercrime, identity theft, fraud and elder fraud, corruption, tax fraud and evasion, and money laundering.

Several state laws have been gathering dust for years. For example, prosecutors have not charged a single defendant using the Life Settlement Fraud law since it was enacted in 2009. Similarly, only 42 defendants were charged using the Defrauding the Government law from 2007 to 2011, compared to more than 1,300 felony charges under the general Scheme to Defraud law.

The report found that strengthening existing general laws is more effective than creating narrow, “boutique” laws like the Life Settlement Fraud and Defrauding the Government laws. It also recommended that white-collar crime should be graded based on the number of victims and the amount of money or property stolen.

“Should our state Legislature be wise enough to turn these proposals into law, New York will have enacted the most progressive statutory scheme to combat white collar crime,” said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

“The Report of the New York State White Collar Crime Task Force” is over 100 pages long, accompanied by an appendix of a similar size. The task force was composed of state prosecutors, private defense attorneys, legal scholars, a state tax official, a retired judge, and a federal prosecutor.

The changes to anti-corruption laws are perhaps most significant. If enacted, the new public official bribery laws would align New York with the majority of other states where prosecutors do not have to prove that an agreement has been made between the bribe-giver and the bribe-receiver. The reformed law would instead make it illegal to give a bribe with the intent of influencing an official.

Changes to the anti-corruption laws, by their nature, affect the very people who enact them—the state legislators. Vance Jr. said that the task force’s starting point was to create a good-government report rather than a set of recommendations that would be the most politically feasible.

When asked if there will be resistance to the anti-corruption measures, some members of the task force broke into a smile.

“Perhaps,” said Vance Jr.