New York City Criminal Justice Reform

A series of new bills in New York City Council could pose tremendous changes to the way that “quality of life” crimes are policed and enforced.

The bills, collectively called the Criminal Justice Reform Act, have been proposed and sponsored by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito are designed to change the way that minor offenses, such as public urination, open-containers of alcohol in public and noise violation are policed and penalized.

When police stop someone for committing quality of life crimes, the defendant is handed a criminal summons, or c-summons for which he or she will have to appear in court and pay the fine.

“What’s happening is people are not paying their fines or not answering their summonses in court and then ultimately there is a warrant being issued for their arrest,” City Councilman Andrew Cohen said, “We have I think 1.5 Million open warrants in the City of New York.”

As a result, anyone with an open bench warrant is subject to arrest if and when they next come across a police officer. Historically, Mr. Cohen said, these kinds of laws have been unfair and even discriminatory to minority groups and in over policed neighborhoods.

“I do believe that these summonses are being issued in a disparaged and uneven way; that some neighborhoods are being flooded with summonses and some are not,” he said. “I haven’t quite made up my mind on what I’m going to [vote] yet, I don’t know if there are going to be tweaks to the legislation after a lengthy hearing we had [on Jan. 25].”

According to the New York Times both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Bill Bratton have publicly supported the reforms that would reduce many of the offenses that would constitute at criminal summonses to civil summonses, like parking and traffic tickets.

“I guess they could be civil-type penalties,” Captain Terence O’Toole of the 50th Precinct said. “Once upon a time we used to have to carry four different summonses and then to do away with that, there was one type if summons that we used all the time … so now it becomes a little harder for the officer.”

Cpt. O’Toole said that he expects, if the laws pass, a learning curve for police to transition into not only carrying but issuing a different type of summons than they have for many years.

“Anytime we stop somebody for committing a violation, they are subject to arrest a summons is given in lieu of arrest,” he said. “With a civil summons, that becomes challenged,”

While many quality of life crimes are not a major issue in Riverdale, nor is it an over policed area, policing tactics might not change very much for the 50th Precinct, with the possible exception of college students.

Jean Rincon, the founder of a Twitter account called Sleepless in Riverdale, said she thinks the change form criminal summonses to civil summonses would be better for stopping rambunctious students from making noise late at night.

“There’s been almost zero enforcement anyway, as far as the noise issues or the open container or the underage drinking,” she said. “The problem is that [police] aren’t treating theses offenses like anything, I mean they are done by middle class, white kids that are ‘nice,’ and the cops themselves have said they’re not criminals and ‘we don’t want to ruin their permanent record.’”

Ms. Rincon said that she hopes the new reforms might actually encourage officers to make more of an effort to stop noise and drinking issues, with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be criminalizing students.

“If some kids of color come in from an another neighborhood and do it—bam—they’re on them like that,” she said. “[Police] should be disciplining, maybe not putting them in jail, I think if they take away these strong sentences the cops might be more willing to hand out summonses because they won’t be ruining the kids’ futures.”