City Council members pushing a legislative package that would overhaul the punishments for low-level offenses sought to reassure New Yorkers that the legislation isn’t going to decriminalize acts like public urination or public drinking.
Rather, they say, it’s going to address an inequity in the criminal justice system that has seen too many people, particularly minorities, hit with serious jail time over minor issues.
“We want to make sure that our police department is still enforcing the law. We just want to make sure there is parity,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee on public safety.
The Criminal Justice Reform Act is a series of eight legislative pieces that would enforce civil court fines instead of a criminal court summons or possibly jail time for certain public-nuisance misdemeanors. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday.
Under current law, the police enforce low-level quality of life crimes with summonses to criminal court, which require a mandatory appearance even for a defendant who pleads guilty and pays the fine. The NYCLU said 81% of summonses between 2001 and 2013 were given to black and Latino residents.
The bills were the product of months of discussions among lawmakers, civil rights groups and the police to resolve differences over how sweeping the changes should be
While proponents saw a way to bring relief to overcrowded court and jail systems, critics contended outright decriminalization would compromise the NYPD’s “broken windows” policing strategy, based on the idea that quality-of-life offenses create fertile ground for bigger crimes.
Gibson emphasized that the bills don’t prohibit officers from making arrests or issuing tickets. Rather, it changes the punishment to fit the appropriate crime, she said.
Under current law, “a lot of these infractions could be punishable by a misdemeanor, and that’s not the message we want to send as a city,” she said.
Her Council colleagues agreed and said it was the logical solution.
About 40% of people who are issued criminal court summonses miss their date and about 1.1 million New Yorkers have outstanding warrants for those absences, according to the NYCLU.
City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens), who is sponsoring one of the bills, said some New Yorkers can’t take a day off or wait on the long lines at summons court.
“Now the next time they come in contact with a police officer, they get handcuffed and go through the whole criminal justice system,” he said.
Lancman said the bills, which will get tweaks following feedback from the public and other groups, would boost city revenue because New Yorkers have shown to be more responsive to paying to settle civil summonses such as parking tickets.
“There will be some questions (from the public) … but once we work through those questions, I think everyone will see that people be responsive to the civil summons more than the criminal summons,” he said.