The state of New York has a complex Unified Court System. The system in most of the state is somewhat different from that in New York City and the counties of Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island.
Outside New York City, felony criminal cases are heard by the County Court, which also has limited authority to hear civil suits involving claims up to $25,000. City Courts handle misdemeanors and lesser offenses, hear civil suits involving claims up to $15,000, and arraign accused felons. In smaller communities, Town and Village Courts perform these duties, except that they hear civil suits involving claims of only $3,000 or less.
There is a branch of the Supreme Court in each of the state’s 62 counties. Unlike most other states, the Supreme Court is not the highest court in the state, but rather a trial court. Outside New York City, this court handles civil cases seeking damages greater than the local courts’ limits, or over $25,000. This court also handles legal separations, divorces, and annulments, as well as injunctions and other cases where a party is seeking equitable relief.
In New York City, the Civil Court hears lawsuits involving claims up to $25,000 and has a small claims division for cases up to $5,000. The Criminal Court handles misdemeanors, as well as arraignments and preliminary hearings for felonies. (Generally, misdemeanors are punishable by fine or less than one year in prison, while felonies call for imprisonment of more than one year.) The Supreme Court of New York City hears both civil cases greater than $25,000 and felony criminal cases. On Long Island, there are six District Courts which have essentially the same duties as City Courts in other parts of the state.
In addition, all parts of the state have some specialized courts. One is the Family Court, which handles cases involving children and families, including adoption, custody, child support, and family violence. Another is the Surrogate’s Court, which hears cases involving wills and the administration of estates. This court also has authority to handle adoptions. Finally, the Court of Claims handles cases seeking money damages against the state of New York and certain state-related agencies.
Cases of appeal from any of these lower courts are heard first in one of four Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court. The highest court of the state is the Court of Appeals, which handles appeals from the Appellate Divisions as well as some appeals directly from trial courts. The Court of Appeals also rules on admitting attorneys to the state bar.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision operates 54 prison facilities with a total of approximately 53,000 inmates. The website offers a great deal of information for visitors, including an inmate lookup tool and contact information for each of the facilities. Prisoners in state facilities have been sentenced to more than a year of incarceration. The death penalty was abolished in New York in 2007, so there are no death row inmates. All sentences of death were commuted to life in prison.