brooklyn bridgePre 1881, the criminal law of New York relied solely on the common law. That is to say that there was no formalised codification of offences and sentencing, but rather a convention of common laws that were followed by the judges due to tradition rather than statute.

The creation of a fixed penal code

1881 saw the adoption of a fixed penal code, which defined both crimes, and degrees of punishment for those found to be guilty of the crimes. It also codified offences which were previously absent from the common law. The penal code saw little change over the next 83 years. It was renamed the “Penal Law” in 1909, but no substantive changes occurred until 1961.Reformation of the Penal LawThe New York State Legislature took inspiration from the revised penal codes of neighbouring states, who had been greatly influenced by the new Model Penal Code. As a result of their neighbour’s innovation, the New York Legislature sought to re-organise and refine the New York State Law.Changes proposed by the commission covered both organisation and content of the current Penal Law – offences were alphabetically arranged, and many of the current offences were deemed to be unconstitutional and struck from the books.The revised Penal Law saw offences re-grouped with offences of a like nature into similar categories. Some offences which were thought to be of a more privately moral nature (i.e. Adultery) were removed altogether as were archaic laws that were no longer applicable in the modern world.

Finalising the Penal Law

In 1965, the review of the New York Penal Law was concluded and the law was sent to the Legislature for consideration. The New Penal Law came into effect in 1967, and has continued to evolve to this day as new offences are added, and old ones removed once they become irrelevant. Bills are often considered by the Legislature to change the Penal Law.