Criminal justice reform may be in limbo on the federal level, but with local and state governments required to deal with issues on a daily basis, they are finding ways to shake up the status quo. After much debate on the issue, New York City has directed the New York Police Department to relax charges on petty offenses.
In 2015, over 150,000 criminal summonses were issued for petty offenses across the state. For most of these, i.e. public intoxication and public urination– both of which can be found on almost any New York street corner at any time of the day –NYPD has been directed to issue civil citations over criminal summonses.
Recall that New York City has historically been a proponent of cracking down on small crimes to deter bigger crimes, or the broken windows theory. But this enforcement tactic has often sparked pushback from citizens who felt that they were being unfairly and unjustly targeted, their communities were being over-policed, and an undue burden was being placed on their daily lives.
The changes are coming after the passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, a package of legislation championed by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Previously, minor offenses often resulted in criminal summonses which meant requiring someone who may live in say, Coney Island, Brooklyn to travel all the way to Midtown, Manhattan to show up in court. Since many fail to appear, they often result in open warrants with the looming possibility of arrest.
The new laws don’t simply target public intoxication and urination, but other acts that often fall under the “quality of life” brand, such as being in a public park after dark, spitting, littering, and excessive noise. The criminal summonses aren’t completely removed from the equation either, but cops are required to default to a civil summons on these issues rather than default to a criminal citation.
What’s not permitted are civil summonses for those who have “three or more unanswered civil summonses” in the past eight years, those with two or more felony arrests in the last two years, or those on parole or probation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has long been supportive of the broken-windows model of policing, but he signed the bill into law and has slowly shifted gears after prodding from reformers and activists.
Although the bill was passed and signed nearly a year ago, it gave a yearlong grace period to the 50,000-employee department to craft and rollout policies that adhered to the change in the government code.
The city estimates that when fully implemented the law will annually divert 100,000 New Yorkers from the criminal court to a civil process saving the city money, but more importantly not impacting the lives of low-level offenders over something as inoffensive as drinking a beer in a public park.