Will NYC's New Approach to Policing Minor Offenses Be Any Different From 'Broken Windows'?

Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, drinking alcohol in public could be a civil, rather than a criminal, violation.
Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, drinking alcohol in public could be a civil, rather than a criminal, violation.

With a sweeping package of bill proposals certain to infuriate the good people at the New York Post , City Council is now considering a new, and arguably more just, approach to policing minor quality-of-life violations — including drinking in public, littering, and public urination. The Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016, introduced during a hearing this morning, encourages police officers to issue civil rather than criminal summonses for a range of nonviolent offenses.

"By increasing the use of civil adjudication instead of relying on our broken criminal summons system, we can reduce the long-term consequences of over-criminalization while ensuring that the penalties fit the offense and that police have the tools they need to keep us safe," says Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Speaker and main sponsor of the legislative package. "We know that the system has been really rigged against communities of color in particular.... So the question has always been, what can we do in this job to minimize unnecessary interaction with the criminal justice system, so that these young people can really fulfill their potential?"

The types of minor violations addressed in the Criminal Justice Reform Act represented over 55 percent of the 300,000 criminal summonses issued by the city in 2015, according to NYPD numbers. 

"New York City isn't immune from the national debate about over-criminalization and mass incarceration, and these bills address a particular problem that has metastasized from the earliest implementation of 'broken windows' policing," says City Councilman and bill sponsor Rory Lancman. "Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers a year are dragged through the criminal justice system for low-level breaches of public order that could be more fairly and efficiently handled through a civil administrative process that includes monetary fines or community service."

Some advocates for police reform praised the raft of bills as another step toward finally eliminating the NYPD's use of the "broken windows" strategy, which targets low-level crimes in hopes of preventing more serious offenses. The New York Civil Liberties Union sees the City Council's bill package as acknowledging that such low-level offenses are not crimes, but civil offenses not worthy of arrest or jail time.

"It makes no sense to impose lifelong consequences on people for littering or being noisy," says NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. 

But Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, is skeptical that the bills would do much to stop the NYPD from continuing to disproportionately target minorities and communities of color.

"We consider these innocuous activities," Gangi tells the Voice. "These proposals do nothing to address the main problem — that they're still sharply racially biased. That has nothing to do with summonses or arrests, nothing to do with police maintaining an intrusive and oppressive presence among low-income communities of color in the city." A black kid drinking beer on the stoop of his house is still more likely to get a summons than a white couple drinking wine in Central Park while listening to a concert, he added.

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Still, if passed, the Criminal Justice Reform Act would unclog criminal courts and extenuate the issue of outstanding warrants when low-level offenders fail to appear, Mark-Viverito argues.

The package comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio and law enforcement officials are touting an overall reduction in crime and arrests in the city this past year, says de Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein, adding: "The mayor has made a clear commitment to reducing unnecessary arrests while protecting the quality of life of all our residents."


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