Between 2001 and 2013, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News, nearly 2.7 million New Yorkers were issued criminal summonses for publicly consuming alcohol, urinating in public, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, being in a park after dark, failing to obey a park sign, littering, or making unreasonable noise. Hundreds of thousands of them had to appear in court for these seven minor offenses, waiting on a line that can stretch the length of a city block just to stand in front of a judge, plead guilty, and pay a fine. Yes, your honor, I pissed outside.
But if City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has her way, this dreary, daily routine of the New York criminal justice system may be a thing of the past. On Monday, the Daily News and other local outlets reported her office is busy scripting a proposal that would decriminalize those seven offenses, which according to the News, have made up roughly 42 percent of all summonses issued between 2001 and 2013. A City Council spokesperson said the category of offenses would essentially shift from criminal to civil—an idea put forward in the Speaker's State of the City address in February.
People who are caught drinking outside or pissing in an inappropriate place are currently allowed to mail in a guilty plea and a fine, but under Mark-Viverito's plan, you'll also be able to pay fines for five other minor offenses that way. Also, failure to pay won't result in a warrant being issued for your arrest; rather, you'd be hit with a default monetary judgment. That's a big deal, given that there are reportedly 510,000 open arrest warrants related to these crimes. (Jumping a subway turnstile, which the Council Speaker spokesperson said the office is also looking into, led to over 25,000 arrests last year, making it one of the city's leading causes of jail time.)
The Speaker's proposal caps off what has been a week's worth of reform news from New York, as Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that he is seeking a citywide summons reform package too. But while his proposal is focused on fixing what happens inside the courthouse—the way you're notified of your court date, how long it takes to resolve a case, etc.—the Speaker's proposal goes beyond that by seeking to cut down on the number of arrests, which disproportionately affect minorities.
"The repercussions are severe," Mark-Viverito wrote in an op-ed for VICE News last month. "A criminal record often amounts to an almost insurmountable barrier to full participation in society, making it far more difficult to find a job or rent an apartment. Committing a low-level offense should not mark you for the rest of your life, but all too often that is the case."
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It's worth noting that despite de Blasio's appointment of Bill Bratton, a leading proponent of broken windows, as police commissioner, in the mayor's first year in office summonses dropped from 8,468 to 5,709, according to a review of NYPD data by Capital. So far this year, 67,144 summonses have been handed out—a 29 percent drop compared to this same time in 2014, and half of what it was five years ago.
But more important than the raw numbers is the racial disparity in who gets nabbed by the police—according to the Daily News, 81 percent of the people who were given tickets for violations between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic men. In 2014, the cops continued to disproportionately arrest people of color, upsetting many of de Blasio's progressive supporters.
It's unlikely that Bratton will support Mark-Viverito's proposal. At a City Council hearing in March, the Commissioner made his position clear. "I'm not supportive of the idea of civil summonses for these offenses because I think that they'd be basically totally ignored, that they don't have any bite to them, if you will," he said then. With civil offenses, New Yorkers would still be penalized, but they wouldn't be required to show an ID to officers.
Limiting the cops' power is precisely the point for activists like Alyssa Aguilera of criminal justice reform group VOCAL-NY. "If you follow any New Yorker throughout the day, you can bust them for so many crimes. Jaywalking, spitting, walking through a park at night," Aguilera told me. "These are offenses that pose no safety threat whatsoever, yet are devastating for people's lives and family."
"We are involving the police in behavior that, yes, people may find annoying," she continued. "But do we really need to go through the criminal justice system for this?"
I have reached out to the mayor's and the NYPD for this story, but have yet to hear back. An administration spokesperson told the Daily News that the "the Speaker's proposal is under review in consultation with the NYPD." An NYPD spokesperson said that the Department is in "ongoing negotiations" with the City Council.
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