David Dudley Field was both far less ambitious, and far more successful, as a
criminal codifier. A successful New York lawyer, Field's codification efforts extended
beyond the penal law and reflected pragmatic concerns about the accessibility of law,
most importantly to lawyers. Field's codes were designed to simplify legal practice by
sparing attorneys the tedium of having to sift through an everrising mountain of common
law opinions. As a result, Field was more concerned with streamlining than he was with
systematizing or even reforming New York penal law. Field's New York Penal Code was
submitted to the legislature in 1865, and passed into law in 1881. It remained in force
until it was replaced by the New York Penal Law of 1967.
The New York Penal Law, like the revised criminal codes of many other states,
was based in large part on the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code, which had
been published in 1962. In fact, Herbert Wechsler, the Chief Reporter of the Model
Code, served on the legislative commission that drafted the New York code.
The Model Penal Code combined Livingston's systematic ambition and integrated
utilitarian approach with Field's pragmatism and legislative success. When the Model
Code project was launched in 1951, the vast majority of American criminal codes were in
a sorry state. Only Louisiana had undertaken a serious effort to reform its criminal code
since the nineteenth century. A typical American criminal code at the time was less a
code and more a collection of ad hoc statutory enactments, each enactment triggered by a
crime or a crime problem that gained public interest for a time. The major contribution of
previous code "reforms," including the reform of the federal criminal code in 1948, was
to put the offenses in alphabetical order. Faced with this state of affairs, the American
Law Institute's decision to draft a Model Penal Code was an ambitious undertaking.
The American Law Institute (ALI) is a non-governmental organization of highly
regarded judges, lawyers, and law professors in the United States. The Institute typically
drafts a "restatement" of an area of law, which articulates and rationalizes the governing
rules in American jurisdictions. When published, the ALI Restatement of the Law for a
particular area often becomes persuasive authority for courts and legislatures and
commonly is relied upon by courts in interpreting and applying the law.
When the Institute undertook its work on criminal law, however, it judged the
existing law too chaotic and irrational to merit "restatement." What was needed, the
Institute concluded, was a model code, which states might use to draft new criminal
The Institute's criminal law work was first started in 1931, a year after the Institute
completed a model code of criminal procedure. But the work was stalled during the
depression years by lack of adequate funding and later by the events surrounding World
War II. It was renewed in 1951 with a grant from a private foundation and proceeded at
full speed for more than a decade.