Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/821 Wed, 21 Nov 2018 08:32:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) New Approach to Low-Level Offenses is Working http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7911-new-approach-to-low-level-offenses-is-working http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7911-new-approach-to-low-level-offenses-is-working mayorsoffice police

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


How should police respond when someone is drinking a beer in the street, dropping litter, or engaging in other minor offenses? Up until a year ago, a criminal summons was the only answer, and if the person didn’t show up in court, he or she could be arrested on a warrant.

As a result, New Yorkers had as much contact with the system for low-level offenses as for serious crimes.

Consider that in the first half of 2017, there were 112,000 criminal summonses compared to 98,000 misdemeanor arrests and 50,000 felony arrests. The summonses practice had a snowballing effect on the justice system: over its history of this practice, many people failed to take a day off of work or find the time to settle the criminal summons.

More than a million warrants accumulated.

Last year, that all changed.

In city legislation called the Criminal Justice Reform Act (CJRA)—passed by the City Council under then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio—police now have the option to issue a civil summons instead of a criminal summons, which can be handled like a ticket in the city’s administrative law court, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, known as OATH.

Under the CJRA, if the summons is filed at OATH for the hearing, the punishment is a fine. If a court date is missed, it does not result in a warrant and arrest like it could in criminal court.

And if found in violation after a hearing, the option is available to pay the fine or do community service. Community service at OATH is instructive and aimed at preventing future offenses instead of solely requiring the performance of menial tasks.

The effect of the law has been dramatic.

Since June 2017, criminal summonses and warrants for CJRA-eligible offenses are down 89 and 94 percent, respectively. Over the same period, serious crime fell 13 percent.

Warrants issued for failure to appear in court for a small set of low-level offenses—for example, drinking in public, entering a park after dark, unreasonable noise, and public urination—could reach as high as 5,000 in a single month. Now they are around a few hundred.

During this time, the Mayor's Office and the City Council also worked with the NYPD, district attorneys, the courts and other partners to clear more than 644,000 warrants for minor, non-violent offenses that were 10 years old or older.

There are, of course, exceptions to the new enforcement option for low-level offenses. Someone may still be directed to criminal court if he or she has two or more felony arrests in the past two years, has three or more unanswered OATH summonses in the past eight years, is on probation or parole, or if there is another legitimate law enforcement reason.

The success of CJRA is not just that police now have more options. Nor is it just that there is more proportionality in how we enforce the laws, though that is important. It is also that more people are attending to their summonses.

In May of 2017 appearance rates on criminal summonses were at 64 percent. In April of 2018 that number had risen to 71 percent—which is also a credit to the multiple partners, courts, police, district attorneys, and others who helped develop a redesigned summons form, to make directions more clear, and sending text message reminders that alert people of their upcoming court dates.

Enhanced appearance rates are not happenstance. One thing we know well, both from research and from everyday experience, is that people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that they are treated fairly and that the system is responding appropriately. When the punishment for low-level offenses is out of step with the seriousness of the offense, New Yorkers lose confidence in the fairness of the system as a whole and are less likely to comply.

It is one reason why the NYPD had already been issuing fewer criminal summonses even before the CJRA, considering new approaches to low-level offenses, and has expanded neighborhood policing, which emphasizes building partnerships with the community.

We do not know for sure whether this is the dynamic that is changing behavior but we have asked the Misdemeanor Justice Project at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to do an evaluation of the effects of the CJRA and hope to learn more in the year ahead.

We know this will not fix everything. Racial disparity still persists and we have work to do. However, this dramatically lightens the volume and weight of the system’s touches on New Yorkers who commit low-level offenses.

We are hopeful that this approach that relies on residents to live cooperatively with their neighbors while ensuring compliance through proportionate measures will create a virtuous cycle in which rules are followed because they are fair and just.

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Elizabeth Glazer is the Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. On Twitter @CrimJusticeNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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New Approach to Low-Level Offenses is Working Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Now Has Its Own Legal Parameters for ‘Disorderly Conduct’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7350-new-york-city-now-has-its-own-legal-parameters-for-disorderly-conduct http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7350-new-york-city-now-has-its-own-legal-parameters-for-disorderly-conduct vanessa gibson city council john mccarten

Council Member Vanessa Gibson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


A City Council bill that creates an alternative to the state’s “disorderly conduct” statute, and mandates lower punishment for the infraction, became law on Friday along with numerous other bills relating to protecting undocumented immigrant New Yorkers. The bill, sponsored by City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, also adds another plank to the Council’s broad agendas of criminal justice reform and immigrant protections.

The new city law prohibits “disorderly behavior” much in the same way the existing state law currently does -- for incidents involving public altercations, unreasonable noise, obscene gestures in public, obstruction of traffic and other similar offenses --  but it provides for a maximum sentence of five days in prison or a $200 fine, and also includes a civil (as opposed to criminal) penalty option in the form of a $75 fine.

Under the state law, in which punishment can reach up to 15 days in prison or a $250 fine, there were roughly 54,000 convictions in 2016 in New York City criminal courts.

The rationale behind the new city law is simple, but controversial: lowering punishment can prevent the involvement of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, which is often triggered when undocumented immigrants interact or are pulled into the criminal justice system. A punishment longer than five days can also make immigrants ineligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections.

“It’s an option for district attorneys, for judges and for police to use in instances of disorderly conduct, and obviously for non-violent and low-level cases,” said Council Member Gibson, in a phone interview on Monday, during which she warned of dangers undocumented immigrants face from an openly hostile federal administration.

Since before he took office, Donald Trump has been aggressively attacking undocumented immigrants with rhetoric, and, under his presidency federal immigration authorities have followed through with action, stepping up their enforcement efforts. They have taken particular aim at so-called “sanctuary cities” such as New York, which are home to massive populations of undocumented immigrants and relatively friendly local laws.

The New York City Council has responded to the federal administration in kind, by passing a slew of measures aimed at limiting cooperation with ICE and protecting the city’s immigrant population. “We did it so it wouldn’t propel a negative consequence,” Gibson said of her bill. “We wanted to give DAs additional tools to employ. For us, while it applies to everyone, there’s obviously a very intentional focus on immigrants.”

In April, then-Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez (who has since been elected to the position) announced that his office would try to avoid prosecution strategies that could result in deportation proceedings for immigrants. “I am committed to equal and fair justice for all Brooklyn residents – citizens, lawful residents and undocumented immigrants alike,” he said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Now more than ever, we must ensure that a conviction, especially for a minor offense, does not lead to unintended and severe consequences like deportation, which can be unfair, tear families apart and destabilize our communities and businesses.”

As Gibson noted, the Council has moved to reduce penalties and create civil fines for numerous low-level offenses, most significantly through the Criminal Justice Reform Act passed last year. Those efforts have taken on increased importance under Trump. In the last few months, ICE agents have begun to stake out courthouses to nab immigrants showing up to court appearances, even in cases involving nonviolent crimes.

Initial data has shown drastic reductions in criminal court summonses issued under the offenses that were included in the Criminal Justice Reform Act. Between when the act took effect on June 13 and October 1, 2017, there were 4,370 criminal summonses issued under those offenses, compared to 55,224 in the same period in 2016. The NYPD issued 26,154 civil summonses for the covered offenses.

Gibson said her bill was just another part of that larger agenda to ensure “proportional penalties” that match the crimes committed. The efforts don’t necessarily mean an easing of enforcement or so-called broken windows policing of low-level crimes in an effort to prevent larger ones, but it relates to how violations like disorderly conduct are classified and punished. “It falls in line with work we’ve done on criminal justice reform,” she said. “It’s absolutely critical. In light of the current climate, it’s really important for the City Council to advance progressive legislation that protects all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status.”

Murad Awawdeh, vice president of advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said the organization was glad to see the Council take proactive measures to protect immigrants from the “nexus of the criminal justice system and the immigration system,” which can often endanger their status in the country.

“By lowering the maximum punishment for this offense, the city is ensuring that immigrants aren’t unnecessarily detained or possibly deported,” he said of the new disorderly conduct law. “I think it’s timely and also long overdue.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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New York City Now Has Its Own Legal Parameters for ‘Disorderly Conduct’ Mon, 04 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
New York’s Broken Approach to Drug Arrests and Prosecutions http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6609-new-york-s-broken-approach-to-drug-arrests-and-prosecutions http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6609-new-york-s-broken-approach-to-drug-arrests-and-prosecutions nypd appreciation night

(photo via @NYPDnews)


Tyrone Tomlin was standing outside of a deli holding a soda and drinking straw when two police officers from Brooklyn North Narcotics arrested him for possession of drug paraphernalia. The officers asserted that, “based on their training and experience,” Tomlin possessed an item commonly used to package heroin -- the drinking straw. An Assistant District Attorney took the officers at their word and recommended bail, which Judge Laura Johnson set at $1,500 cash. Tomlin didn’t have the $1,500 and was sent to Rikers Island.

Junior Weems was arrested by two undercover officers who asserted that, “based on their training and experience,” Weems had possessed cocaine and intended to sell it. A prosecutor requested bail, which Judge Jane Tully set at $2,000 insurance company bond or $1,000 cash; like Tomlin, Weems told the judge he didn’t have funds to make bail and he too was sent to Rikers Island.

But neither Tomlin nor Weems (whose name has been changed) actually possessed any drugs, a fact that was only verified by the New York Police Department (NYPD) laboratory after each had spent days incarcerated at Rikers Island. Both cases were eventually dismissed, but considerable harm had already been done. Just one day in jail can mean the loss of job, housing, or even parental custody; plus exposure to the horrors and dangers of NYC jails, which have been well documented.

These stories are not unique, unfortunately. More than 20,000 people were arrested for misdemeanor drug possession (excluding marijuana, which is a separate offense) in New York City in 2015, making it the fourth most common arraignment charge citywide. In 2015 alone, Brooklyn Defender Services represented more than 2,000 people – three quarters of whom were black or Latino – whose most serious charge was possessing trace amounts of a drug other than marijuana. The difference between felony and misdemeanor drug possession is weight.

A deeper look into the data shows how fraught many of these low-level cases are, in part because they deal with amounts of substances, either illegal or not, that are so tiny that they are often difficult to identify. Meanwhile, although corroborating lab results are required shortly after arraignment for prosecutors to secure an indictment for a felony, similar due process protections for misdemeanors do not exist. The operating notion is that police officers’ “training and experience” is good enough -- despite evidence that they get it wrong frequently -- and many cases resolve through plea deals before the evidence is even accurately tested.

Of the 2,091 Brooklyn Defender Services cases we reviewed, a full 25 percent -- 534 cases -- were eventually dismissed because the drug lab returned a result contradicting the officers’ “training and experience;” or because they involved an illegal search; or due to other reasons.

Nearly 300 Brooklyn Defender Services clients accused of misdemeanor drug possession (non-marijuana) had bail set, nearly all of whom spent at least some time at Rikers Island. Another 741 defendants pled guilty at arraignments, sometimes to a lower charge. While we cannot say for certain how many people did so under coercion from the prospect of bail and jail, we know anecdotally that many people in cases like this plead guilty -- regardless of guilt or innocence -- simply to avoid more jail time. Everyone arrested and booked in New York City spends around 24 hours locked up in NYPD custody, before even seeing a judge. 

At a time when public opinion nationwide favors treating drug use as a public health issue, we must stop and ask why these problematic arrests and incarcerations, which do not improve public safety, are happening in the first place. In some of these cases, people are arrested and incarcerated even when they do not actually possess illegal drugs. In cases when a person possesses drugs in an amount so small that it can’t be identified properly, should we really be sending them to Rikers Island -- interrupting their life and introducing collateral consequences that can haunt them for years after? 

Ultimately, the simple possession of all drugs, especially in amounts so small they are routinely misidentified, should be fully decriminalized in New York State, as Human Rights Watch eloquently argues in its recent report “Every 25 Seconds.”

As an interim measure, the State Legislature should immediately take action to amend court procedural rules to include due process protections for people accused of possessing small amounts of drugs -- for example by requiring a lab report to hold anyone in custody longer than 24 hours and prohibiting District Attorneys from making recommendations about bail other than release when a lab report is absent. District Attorneys, with an ever-growing mandate to do justice, could resolve the issue immediately by declining to prosecute these cases.

The Mayor of New York City should require the police department to end its prioritization of these arrests, and to limit enforcement only to cases with a clear public safety justification. This aligns with the New York City Council’s work under the 2015 Criminal Justice Reform Act.

The City Council should adopt legislation that would require District Attorneys and the NYPD to report on drug possession cases where an officer’s “training and experience” was contradicted by lab results. These officers should, at minimum, be required to undergo retraining, and repeat offenders should be disqualified from making street-level arrests.

In this time of national reckoning over mass incarceration and the drug war, New York -- both City and State -- have an opportunity for leadership. It’s time for a change.

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Melissa Moore is the deputy state director of the New York policy office of the Drug Policy Alliance. Nick Malinowski is the Community Advocacy Coordinator at Brooklyn Defender Services. On Twitter @mooremeliss and @nwmalinowski.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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New York’s Broken Approach to Drug Arrests and Prosecutions Thu, 03 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6053-new-york-city-needs-supervised-injection-facilities http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6053-new-york-city-needs-supervised-injection-facilities mccray bassett thrivenyc

First Lady McCray & Health Comm. Bassett (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


There is a hot topic trending in the debate over the war on drugs: should there be safe places for intravenous drug users to inject? A panel of experts from around the world convened a symposium in New York City to share their experiences and the panelists and their sponsor, VOCAL NY, called for such a facility in the city. They are completely correct.

There are an estimated 100 supervised injection facilities worldwide and advocates credit them with reducing both overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases (HIV and hepatitis C). These facilities offer clean needles, a sterile environment, and emergency services in the case of an overdose. They also provide education, counseling, access to treatment, and other services that might save users' lives.

Without such refuge, addicts resort to "whatever it takes" to get high and the resulting health problems resonate throughout society by way of the spread of infectious disease and the death of loved ones.

The rise in heroin, the primary drug used via injection, is well-documented and New York is no exception. Staten Island is the borough hardest hit by the heroin epidemic; 74 people there died of overdose in 2014. Many heroin users began by taking prescription painkillers that are chemically similar and after becoming addicted find that heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Mayor de Blasio traveled to Staten Island in early December to announce measures addressing the heroin crisis there. He has made naloxone, an overdose antidote, available in pharmacies without a prescription and promised to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment by licensing more physicians to prescribe maintenance drugs that dull the cravings for heroin.

These are good steps. We still need supervised injection facilities.

Naloxone does not prevent overdoses which can occur from the improvised situations that users often find themselves in. Supervised facilities prevent overdoses by providing an environment that is cleaner and less chaotic than, say, a gas station restroom.

The spread of infectious disease through unsanitary conditions and instruments represents an even deadlier and widespread threat than overdose - infected users spread disease to unsuspecting loved ones, often through sexual intercourse.

One of the thorniest problems in combating illegal drugs is the fact that they are illegal and addicts, because they are punished, deplored, and shamed for their disease, live in the shadows, apart from mainstream society. Supervised facilities provide a place where they are not judged. Staff, often recovered addicts who understand their dire situation, can offer users a path out of their misery and provide education on infectious diseases and methods of prevention.

Supervised injection facilities are one example of the "harm reduction strategy" towards substance abuse. Needle exchanges are another example; they accept the fact that users will utilize infected needles if that is their only choice, but respect that users are intelligent and prefer clean needles if they are available. The immediate result of needle exchanges is fewer persons infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, thus the harm of addiction is reduced. New York City has 15 needle exchanges, but only one on Staten Island and, sad to say, no one is asking for more.

The harm reduction strategy is the polar opposite of the 50-year-long "war on drugs" which was lost long ago, though few will admit it. Throughout the world opinion is shifting towards decriminalizing all drugs. A recent draft United Nations report recommended decriminalizing drugs and Portugal did so about ten years ago with no discernible detriment to civil society.

A recent editorial in the Staten Island Advance excoriated the idea of safe places like supervised injection facilities, saying that they encourage more drug use - but they do not; they encourage safe drug use.

It is the plain fact that many thousands of people, without any encouragement, are seeking out heroin for any number of reasons. On Staten Island, and throughout New York City, it is time to tear down the walls that separate us, bring users in from the cold, and offer them whatever help we can.

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Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com

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New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities Wed, 23 Dec 2015 16:01:24 +0000