Big Crackdown on Little Crime

Bloomberg out-Rudys Rudy when it comes to the NYPD's "quality of life" enforcement

But such a system can become a slave to its own success. Large gains one year make smaller improvements later on seem lackluster, and narrow measures take on broad significance. The numbers start as a means to an end, but become the goal itself. Minor movements in the crime index are treated as reasons for celebration or worry. Crime reports become political footballs.

And the people represented by the numbers become, well, numbers. Once police officers stop people for alleged quality of life offenses, anything can happen. They may just receive summonses (as 680,000 New Yorkers did last year) and pay fines. The cops may instead arrest them and give them "desk appearance tickets," so they get out of jail and go to court on their own. Or the police can hold them. Depending on the offense, they might be fingerprinted. They might get in fights in a crowded cell, miss work, miss custody hearings, lose their space in line for apartments. Eventually they're brought before judges. The law says that's supposed to happen in 24 hours, but sometimes paperwork gets lost or there's a backlog. People can spend more time in jail waiting for their arraignment than they would if found guilty.

Luckily for some of the unfortunates who make it to Bronx AR2—the vast majority of whom were black or Latino—Birnbaum doesn't appear to be the lock-'em-up type. While the Voice was observing his court in action, he dismissed some of the minor cases with head-spinning speed. On more serious charges, he seemed reluctant to sentence people to jail, favoring community service and treatment programs. Even when someone had failed to complete a light sentence and returned to his court, he was apt to give second and third chances, admonishing him or her quietly, "Don't come back here."

Illustration by Neil Swaab

On April 18, Birnbaum saw several drug cases and alleged assaults. James T., for one, was charged with menacing, weapons possession, and larceny. The loot was Polly-O Mozzarella. "They're all serious," the judge said of the charges, "but they seem to stem from this alleged unlawful taking of the cheeses."

That day he also saw 10 people who had been arrested or given summonses for open containers, seven alleged trespassers, and an accused turnstile jumper. One man was hauled in for selling bootleg videos and another for false impersonation. One woman couldn't make her arraign-ment on a marijuana violation—not even a misdemeanor, a violation—because, her lawyer says, she's dying of AIDS upstate. The case was continued. So was the case of a man busted in 1977 for public lewdness and resisting arrest but who was back in court last week on those charges.

There's no question that quality of life crimes are—in fact—crimes, and that they're incredibly annoying. Litterbugs suck, as do SUVs that blast bass so loud they set off car alarms at 3 a.m. It's not pleasant to see someone tag your building, to smell piss everywhere in the park, or to watch someone rip off the MTA as you dutifully sweep your MetroCard.

The question is whether making our lives nicer—whether this effort to, as The New York Times recently dubbed it, "curb everyday annoyances and foster more civility"—is worth the price paid by Raphael V.

Raphael is about 25 and works as a messenger, or at least he did before his arrest on April 17. He said he was on his way to work that day but the MetroCard his employer gives him ran out the night before, so he borrowed his stepson's student card. A cop arrested him for violating penal code 165.15 (3), theft of services.

Raphael saw Judge Richard Allman in Brooklyn AR1, where the proceedings one day last week mixed serious crimes (guys who allegedly punched girlfriends, ejaculated on roommates, or had 230 bags of crack) with accused trespassers, pot smokers, public drinkers, unlicensed vendors, and people who'd not really jumped turnstiles but done things like use their student MetroCard on a day off from school. They had all been arrested, most of them the night before.

Like Birnbaum in the Bronx, Allman handed out a fair share of ACDs. But he also gave a woman 60 days for shoplifting shampoo and toothpaste. Whenever somebody pleaded guilty, Allman read them a scripted series of statements and questions, including this: "When a person pleads guilty to a misdemeanor, they give up important rights. One of these is the right to a trial where the people would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard in our law, that you were guilty. It's up to the people to prove that you're guilty. You don't have to prove that you're innocent."

Well, sometimes. After two days in jail, Raphael V. decided to end it right there, pleaded guilty, and now owes $265 in a fine and court costs.

AR1 recessed for the day at 5 p.m. Night court started 30 minutes later.

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