January 25, 2016 — The New York Civil Liberties Union is testifying today in front of the New York City Council urging lawmakers to pass the Criminal Justice Reform Act, a package of eight bills with the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, especially people of color, from being shackled with criminal records for minor offenses. The bills would require the NYPD to create a policy encouraging officers to steer people accused of certain low-level offenses, like littering and drinking in public, into civil court where they would not face criminal penalties and could not be sentenced to jail.
“This act is a significant step forward from ‘broken windows’ policing, which recklessly shackled thousands of black New Yorkers with criminal records. It makes no sense to impose lifelong consequences on people for littering or being noisy,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We also welcome the act’s transparency requirements: New Yorkers should know who gets targeted for enforcement and what the consequences are.”
These bills acknowledge the reality that, in the vast majority of cases, public consumption of alcohol, littering, public urination, unreasonable noise and most parks offenses are not crimes and are better suited for civil enforcement before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Under the legislation, people accused of these offenses who were sent to civil court could not face jail time and would not be saddled with a bench warrant if they failed to appear or pay a fine. The act would also provide the option of community service for those who can’t afford to pay fines. Furthermore, the act would provide meaningful transparency by requiring reporting on the enforcement of desk appearance tickets, criminal court summonses and notices of violation, including information on the race, gender and age of people targeted by police.
Currently hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers accused of low-level offenses are thrust into the criminal justice system each year. Many of them receive criminal convictions that can affect every aspect of their lives, including eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, job opportunities, child custody and immigration status.
In its testimony, the NYCLU urges the NYPD to engage with community members as it develops the new guidelines and recommends that the City Council increase funding to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to ensure that people can continue to access to legal assistance under the new system. The NYCLU also urges requiring the NYPD to commit to enforcing the new policy and to disciplining officers who fail to follow it.
“This legislation offers a welcome acknowledgement that no New Yorker should be sent to jail for carrying an open container of beer or sitting in a park after it’s closed,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller. “But the Council must also recognize there is still work to be done. Criminal justice reforms must go hand in hand with policing reforms. New York still needs legislation like the Right to Know Act, which would better hold officers accountable and help rebuild trust between police and the communities they serve.”