ALBANY, N.Y. — The number of homicides in New York dropped last year to the lowest level in decades to roughly 750, or about one-third of the killings in 1990, the deadliest year on record, officials said Monday.
Sean Byrne, the state's acting criminal justice commissioner, told a legislative committee that preliminary data show all crime, including violent crime, declined in 2011. That included a drop of more than 10 percent in homicides compared to 2010.
"Homicides will be at the lowest number reported since statewide crime reporting began 37 years ago," Byrne said. They peaked at 2,606 in 1990.
Byrne noted several factors, including better crime analysis and follow-up. He told lawmakers that one of the best methods of reducing recidivism is helping former offenders get jobs, and there is some proposed program funding for that next year.
Authorities also say the expanded database of offender DNA samples has helped cut crime. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed roughly doubling the program to include every felony or penal misdemeanor. People convicted of all penal felonies and three dozen misdemeanors now have to give samples of their genetic material from a simple saliva swab.
"No initiative has more potential to reduce violent crime than the proposal to expand the DNA databank," Byrne said, noting the database has had more than 10,000 hits since it began in 1996. "DNA also breathes new life into cases whose trail of evidence went cold decades ago. ... Just as important, countless suspects are routinely excluded from suspicion and 27 individuals have been exonerated in New York state through DNA evidence."
The state Senate passed similar legislation last year. The Assembly-passed version also had other provisions intended to help prevent wrongful convictions, like giving defense lawyers more access to DNA information.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told reporters Monday there is a consensus in his Democratic conference on expanding the database and seeing it used for clearing the wrongly accused. "Because every false arrest, especially in a sex crime case, somebody is running around the streets at large as a result of not being able to access the databank and find the appropriate criminal," he said.
New York Bar Association President Vincent Doyle testified at the hearing that his overriding concern is Cuomo's proposal is limited in scope. He suggested lawmakers add other methods of preventing wrongful convictions like requiring videotaped recordings of police interrogations, strengthening prosecutors' obligations to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, and allowing a defendant who has pleaded guilty to a crime to petition a judge to get a DNA test.
Earlier, Chief Administrative Judge Gail Prudenti told lawmakers the courts are proceeding under "a staggering workload," with about 4 million cases now filed annually, while keeping the budget down by reducing personnel and limiting hours. The funding proposal for the coming fiscal year, if approved, should allow reinstating some evening small claims court sessions and trying to keep most courts open a half-hour later until 5 p.m., she said.
Prudenti noted there are 75,000 home foreclosure cases pending, while special conferences have helped stop about 10,000 foreclosures.