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The unintended consequences of prosecuting low-level crimes

New York Amsterdam News

With momentum toward closing the dysfunctional jails on Rikers Island and continuing reductions in crime, New York City is making progress toward a better justice system. Despite steps in the right direction, the road to shuttering Rikers is paved with hard decisions and, most importantly, the recognition that our criminal courts are not the solution for all of society’s ills. This reality is in the spotlight because of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s recent decision not to prosecute most people who are arrested for jumping subway turnstiles. Today, when police officers stop someone for jumping the turnstile, they can either arrest the offender and bring the offender to court for criminal prosecution, or instead issue a civil or criminal summons. As Vance has recognized, prosecuting turnstile jumpers for these “theft of service” crimes clogs our criminal court system and unfairly affects low-income Black and Brown New Yorkers, with little or no impact on public safety. Many people who are stopped for theft of services already receive a civil summons rather than criminal charges. The NYPD has made progress in prioritizing summonses over arrests. But Vance’s decision recognizes that too many people continue to be arrested—more than 8,000 per year in Manhattan alone.

Last year, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform that I chair—a nonpartisan group of civic leaders from across the city—concluded its study of our city’s justice system. In our April 2017 report, “A More Just New York City,” we issued a blueprint for shutting down the jails on Rikers.

One of our recommendations was that New York decriminalize low-level offenses such as theft of services and instead handle them solely with civil summonses—akin to a ticket for speeding—rather than with criminal charges. Our goal was to prioritize accountability without wasting the resources of the criminal courts, prosecutors and public defenders on minor offenses and without imposing the collateral consequences of criminal arrests on low-income New Yorkers.

We analyzed all 249,776 criminal cases that passed through the New York City courts in 2016. In more than four in five (82 percent) of those cases, the most serious charge was a misdemeanor. Most of these cases involved low-level unlawful conduct, including jumping the subway turnstile, petty theft, possessing a small amount of marijuana or other drugs, or driving with a suspended license. These charges alone accounted for 41 percent of all criminal arrests.

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