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New York Is Easing Up on Petty Crimes Like Drinking and Peeing in Public

It's about time.

A man drinking on the street in Harlem. Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

For most of New York City's recent history, law enforcement has been a numbers game.

Take the 2.7 million summonses that, according to a Daily News analysis, were issued to people for nonviolent offenses between 2001 and June 2014. A lot of them were for really petty offenses, by the way: publicly consuming alcohol, urinating in public, riding a bike on the sidewalk, being in a park after dark, littering, or even making unreasonable noise.


Then there's the racial divide: 81 percent of violations issued between 2001 and 2013 hit African Americans and Latinos. And you can't forget the 1.5 million arrest warrants floating around the city for crimes as insignificant as walking through a park past dark.

These figures are the dregs of the notorious "broken windows" policing model, clogging nightmarish criminal courts and leaving permanent records for thousands of New Yorkers. But now, after 15 months of negotiations between the New York Police Department and local politicians, America's largest city is beginning to change course.

On Wednesday, NYC lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016 (CJRA), which has been tagged by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito as one of the "most expansive packages of criminal justice reform legislation ever passed in New York City." The legislation, which is a collection of eight individual bills, should help stymie the onslaught of human beings that grind through the criminal process every day, often with tragic effects.

Under the new rules, which VICE reported on back in January, a city cop will now be advised to impose a small civil penalty, rather than a criminal one, for these petty offenses. While all of the various infractions are still technically illegal, the punishment citizens actually pay will change drastically, with a standardized set of fines staggered based on past history taking effect.


For example, a public urination or littering ticket used to cost you either ten days in jail, or fines between $50 and $450. But starting a year from now, these infractions will cost you $50 to $75. Then, if you're caught again, that jumps to $250 to $350, to be paid within 12 days. A similar scheme exists for making unreasonable noise, or breaking park rules.

Now the only jail time anyone will have to serve for these offenses is a single day. And in New York City parks, seemingly carefree acts—like walking over newly seeded lawns, or even climbing a tree—will no longer be criminal offenses at all.

"Our policies just weren't fair," Mark-Viverito said at a press conference before the vote. "And they weren't making economic sense either.

The speaker mentioned the effort over a year ago in her "state of the city" address, saying then that the city had to rethink how it punishes its citizens—not only out of respect for individual liberty and justice, but also because the status quo is so damn expensive.

"It was New Yorkers who were paying the bill," she said then. "Whether it was the cost of locking up someone for at least twenty-four hours, if not longer; for one of these one and a half million warrants; or the public assistance many found themselves on after being given a permanent criminal record."

The package of bills is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in the coming days. Under his tenure, summonses and the use of the controversial tactic known as "stop and frisk" have decreased significantly (although they still are applied in racially disparate fashion). The mayor, who was elected in 2013 on a police reform platform, has also put measures into place to reform the hellish court system, the more hellish Rikers Island, and, more recently, the bail problem.


"The Criminal Justice Reform Act will play a crucial role in building a fairer criminal justice system for all New Yorkers," de Blasio said in a statement. "We pledged to reduce unnecessary arrests while protecting the quality of life of all our residents, and this legislation is an important step toward this essential goal."

When the reforms were first proposed, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton was hesitant, saying civil penalties "don't have any bite to them." But a spokesperson for Bratton told the Wall Street Journal the bill "allows the NYPD to use the full range of enforcement tools that we currently have."

It is important to note, however, that a police officer is not legislatively required to settle for a civil penalty instead of a criminal one—it's still up to them how much of a dick to be when they catch you pissing in an alleyway. But now, cops will at least be encouraged not to, with guidance from their superiors that will be made public.

The limited nature of the reform has some advocates arguing the new law will duck the heart of the problem.

"The CJRA has potential to advance needed criminal justice reform, but it is not police reform and does not disrupt discriminatory broken windows policing that propels racial disparities in policies and outcomes," said Monifa Bandele, a member of Communities United for Police Reform. "Whether its impact is beneficial to New Yorkers in the long run lies in the details, since the NYPD retains ultimate control over most of its implementation and the direction given to officers."


Bandele added that the council left out the Right to Know Act, which would require cops to explain themselves when stopping and searching people. Not including the bill in the final package, Bandele said, "is a missed opportunity that leaves New Yorkers just as vulnerable to police abuses continuing to occur in neighborhoods throughout the city."

In fairness, the CJRA isn't necessarily about changing policing. Instead, it focuses on the facts that in some boroughs, criminal courts are open past midnight, lines for warrant forgiveness events are known to scale an entire block, and that in 2015, cops gave out 297,413 criminal summonses.

"We will divert over one hundred thousand cases from the criminal justice system every year, save almost ten thousand people from a permanent criminal record, and prevent approximately fifty thousand or more arrest warrants from being issued for these low-level offenses," said Speaker Mark-Viverito.

The new law "will ensure proportionality and fairness on a grand scale," she added, "all while keeping our city safe."

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