Decriminalizing minor offenses a positive step

WSN Editorial Board

The New York Daily News reported on Monday that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is working on a proposal that would see fewer New Yorkers arrested on relatively minor charges, including public consumption of alcohol, being in a park after dark and public urination. In New York City today, minor offenses like these are criminal offenses that are maintained on record and can lead to jail time if addressed.  Several City Council members are seeking to reclassify these as civil offenses, meaning they would lead to fines, instead of an appearance in criminal court. The City Council are right to reduce the needlessly punitive aspects of the justice system. Most importantly, they are finally reversing the discredited  “broken windows” theory and not jailing people — predominantly people of color  — for minor offenses.

Years of aggressive policing has resulted in the flood of misdemeanor cases, which account for 70 to 80 percent of criminal cases each year. Low-income defendants often lack the financial wherewithal to hire lawyers, and often give up defending their cases. Such cases are pointless and merely strain the judicial system. The National Center for State Courts argues that the unmanageable volume of misdemeanor cases caused the U.S. judicial system to be degraded to “assembly line justice,” in which police officers, prosecutors and clerks merely execute processes and do not actively enforce justice in the society.

While using the courts to generate revenues can be harmful, as shown by recent events in Ferguson, the decriminalization initiative would both reduce costs and increase money flow to the city’s coffers. The changes would allow  individuals to pay fines via mail or online, likely leading to a higher percentage of paid fines. While some have expressed concern about people pleading guilty to misdemeanors by paying their fine remotely, this could improve on the current system, in which half of those who receive criminal summons do not attend and a quarter of those fined do not pay. Failure to pay a civil fine can result  in garnished wages and damaged credit, but not jail time, so decriminalization would reduce the cost of jailing residents for minor infractions while raising revenue through fines. New York City spends more  than any other city or even state on incarceration, with a year’s jail time costing about $167,000 per inmate, which is more than two years’ tuition at Harvard.

Speaking at a council meeting in March, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton warned that civil summonses would not be as effective at preventing crime. But deterrence is only one function of the justice system: a bigger problem than civil tickets not being taken seriously is the thousands in prison for petty offenses. Government bodies work for the citizenry — from the city council to the NYPD, they should benefit everyone and not favor
the elites.

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A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 21 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]

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