It must suck to be the speaker of New York City Council. Melissa Mark-Viverito holds that position of great power and importance, and yet has so little to do that she, in conjunction with Mayor Bill de Blasio, have put her energies into crafting a compromise that fulfills two pressing progressive needs: How to micromanage the behavior of New Yorkers without unduly impacting blacks and Hispanics.
To this end, they’ve come up with a package of eight new city laws to eliminate “quality of life” offenses, the sort of stuff that was the target of “broken windows” policing.
New York City is poised to reshape how it treats many so-called quality-of-life offenses, softening its stance toward low-level infractions like public urination and drinking alcohol in public by steering those cases away from the criminal court system.
Under the legislation, New Yorkers given tickets by the police for offenses such as violating city park rules, a misdemeanor now, would in many cases be steered to a civil process rather than criminal court.
This wouldn’t change the existence of current criminal laws prohibiting these petty offenses, but would add another layer of laws, which they would prefer the police use instead of criminal process.
Offenses covered by the legislation would not be decriminalized, as critics had accused the City Council of seeking to do when the proposal emerged last year. Instead, officials said, the bills, known collectively as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, seek to balance the goal of fairer punishment, laid out by Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who is the Council speaker, with the Police Department’s desire to maintain the discretion that officers use in making arrests, for even seemingly trivial offenses, when they deem it necessary.
So the police can pick whether to arrest or cite with a civil summons, because it would make them sad to lose their discretion. What could possibly go wrong? The rationale is that criminal “broken windows” enforcement disproportionately affects poor and minority neighborhoods, with the negative impacts of criminal convictions and potential jail sentences. By creating an alternative, civil rather than criminal process, the hope is that the City Council can still address quality of life offense, while removing them from the criminal process.
“We know that the system has been really rigged against communities of color in particular,” said Ms. Mark-Viverito, who has promoted such reforms and is the main sponsor of the bills. “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 approach is also meant to address two persistent problems that have bedeviled the judicial system: hundreds of thousands of low-level offenders clogging the criminal courts, and the outstanding warrants that result when those offenders fail to appear in court. Mr. de Blasio and state court officials have tried to address the same problem, altering criminal court procedures to expedite cases and to reduce the number of warrants.
Will this work? The first question is whether the police, in the exercise of their discretion, will use it. And they may, if the bosses change the quotas from criminal arrests and summons to these civil summons. A cynic might suggest that it will be just another wedge to compel compliance, a carrot and stick measure, for cops to be kind to those who bow and scrape or punish those who don’t. Consent to a search, get a civil summons. Assert your constitutional rights, get arrested. Your call, kids.
An even worse cynic might suggest that it will depend on one’s neighborhood or skin color.
But does the creation of an alternate path, less criminal (provided they pay the fine, since failure to do so will bring it back within the realm of criminal, which is where everything ultimately ends up because that’s how government makes you do stuff) hurt? The New York Times sees this as a blessing:
The goal is balance, said the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, calling the bills an “incremental” step toward a fairer society while preserving the tools to protect civil order. If the proposals work as promised, the police won’t have to abandon “broken windows” policing, but they will be less likely to afflict so many New Yorkers with arrest warrants, rap sheets and jail time.
Of course, reforming criminal justice is not the same as reforming policing. If officers still use too heavy a hand in communities of color, these changes may simply shift the consequences of unfair policing to a different court system. A fine for a first-time, low-level offense is obviously a better deal than jail. But injustice that is less damaging to people’s lives is still injustice.
The Times notes that there are “tough on crime” critics who complain that littering is the gateway to murder, and ignoring criminal process for quality of life crimes will bring lawlessness back to the City.
They appear to believe that all offenders, no matter how minor their misbehavior, are on the path to robbery and murder. There is no evidence of that, but these critics have no interest in facts.
Well, in fairness, neither side has any interest in facts. The Times sees this “reform” as being a positive, if somewhat tepid, step in the right direction.
A more rational set of laws and punishments can keep the peace and ease the burden of overpolicing in communities of color. These proposed reforms seem like a helpful shift in that direction.
So what’s not to like about this civil alternative to quality of life prohibitions? Well, the package is sold based on trivial fines for trivial offenses, but that doesn’t prevent the fines from being increased later. Today’s $25 fine is tomorrow’s $500 fine, and the failure to pay results in a warrant of arrest and we’re back to jail time.
Then there’s adjudication by the City’s administrative “court,” where the chance of prevailing on the argument that the ticket was issued because a cop just wanted to hassle someone goes from slim to none. And since it’s civil, there will be no free lawyers hanging around to help.
But nobody seems to notice that if criminal sanctions haven’t served to deter people from committing these quality of life offenses, what purpose would lesser punishments serve? So is this really just a post hoc revenue raiser?
Or is this just another example of a City Council without enough to do with its time, so it comes up with brand new quasi-criminal processes to add yet another layer of bureaucracy, of offenses, of fines, of ways to make people’s lives miserable, on top of the one that already exists?
Isn’t there a Big Gulp somewhere that demands criminalizing? And if you really want to stop homeless people from peeing against a wall, why not give them a place to tinkle? But then, the school marms in charge wouldn’t be able to dictate their view of appropriate behavior while pretending that they care deeply about the poor and minorities, who will always bear the brunt of police attention. And it makes Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito feel like she’s actually relevant.