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How New York City May Revamp Its Criminal Justice System

It's up to cities and municipalities to reform America's criminal justice system. And by instituting a series of proposals, New York City could lead the way.

by Melissa Mark-Viverito
Mar 26 2015, 7:10pm

Photo by Bebeto Matthews/AP

In the wake of the Department of Justice report on the deep, systemic injustices in Ferguson, it's going to fall to the nation's cities and municipalities to take the lead on criminal justice reform. And here in New York City, we want to serve as a model for the rest of the nation on how to create a fairer criminal justice system.

The city's criminal justice system has long been filled with mostly young men of color who are charged with low-level, non-violent offenses like subway turnstile jumping. These young men are often too poor to make bail, forcing them into jails and detention centers and leaving them unable to be productive members of our city when they are released. While jailed, they may lose their jobs and housing, and they are unable to care for their children. Once released, they're likely to need public assistance. This creates short- and long-term societal and fiscal consequences that exceed the seriousness of the original offense.

Eighty-five percent of the cases that come through the city's system are for misdemeanors or non-criminal offenses, and judges set bail in approximately 20 percent of misdemeanor cases. Only 12 percent of defendants in these cases can post bail immediately, meaning the rest end up spending time at Rikers Island or another correctional facility while awaiting trial. The average length of stay in jail for someone awaiting trial on a minor offense is 24 days.

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The repercussions are severe. 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.

This is why the New York City Council is proposing an expansion of the use of summonses for certain minor, non-violent offenses, instead of imposing a criminal charge that carries with it the possibility of a criminal record and jail time. This way, those who commit low-level offenses will still be held accountable, but they will not face the drastic consequences of going to jail or obtaining a criminal record. The City Council, mayor's office, and NYPD will work together to identify the types of offenses that should be treated in this manner.

Often, defendants charged with low-level offenses — mostly young men of color — serve more time in pre-trial detention than they would have for their actual sentence.

The Council will also explore having other non-violent low-level offenses processed as desk appearance tickets; the defendant would still be formally arrested and charged with a crime, but he or she would then be released and allowed to return to court. And we will look at reducing some criminal offenses — such as open container laws or being in the parks after dark — to civil offenses to further reduce the unfair consequences of criminalizing minor offenses.

A large number of defendants charged with minor, non-violent offenses end up being locked up in pre-trial detention solely because they cannot afford bail. Even when bail is $500 or less, only 15 percent of those charged can afford to pay it immediately. In addition to the harsh impact of doing time in jail, housing an inmate costs the city about $100,000 per year; often these defendants, mostly young men of color, serve more time in pre-trial detention than they would have for their actual sentence.

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The creation of a citywide bail fund to assist low-risk offenders make small bail amounts could fix the problem while, in fact, saving the city money. This type of fund has proven effective in pilot programs, with about 9 out of 10 people showing up for their court appearances — slightly more than show up after traditional bail or release. Those who fail to appear will have a warrant for their arrest issued.

Criminal justice reform is becoming an issue that is uniting rather than dividing people along traditional political lines nationally. In the Senate, Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Rand Paul are teaming up to reform sentencing, while the Koch Brothers and Center for American Progress are working together to reduce prison populations and recidivism. They all rightly understand that this is not a left-right or red-blue issue. This is an issue of basic fairness.

Melissa Mark-Viverito is the speaker of the New York City Council. Follow her on Twitter: @MMViverito