The New York City Council passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act today, a package of eight bills that could prevent hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, especially people of color, from being slapped with criminal records for minor offenses. The bills 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 will not face criminal penalties. The bills now go to Mayor de Blasio, who is expected to sign them.
“No one should be shackled with a criminal record for littering or being in a park after it’s closed,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This act makes important progress away from the crippling effects of ‘broken windows’ policing and toward policing practices that are smarter, fairer and safer for all New Yorkers."
Currently hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers accused of minor infractions are pushed 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.
As the NYCLU explained in its testimony to the City Council in January, the Criminal Justice Reform Act acknowledges the reality that, in the vast majority of cases, public consumption of alcohol, littering, public urination, unreasonable noise and most parks offenses should not lead to criminal records. These infractions are better suited for civil enforcement before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Under the legislation, people accused of these offenses who are sent to civil court will not be saddled with a bench warrant if they fail to appear or pay a fine.
In line with the NYCLU’s recommendations, the final version of the act includes a provision that allows hearing officers to weigh an individual’s personal circumstances when deciding whether to dismiss a case. And community service will be offered to everyone, not just those too poor to pay fines.
The act also provides 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.
While the Criminal Justice Reform Act will hopefully lead to New Yorkers having fewer interactions with the criminal justice system, it does not reform police practices. The NYPD must commit to enforcing the new policy and disciplining officers who fail to follow it. Importantly, the act does not provide means to de-escalate every day policing encounters. Legislation currently before the City Council, the Right to Know Act, will require police to identify themselves when they stop someone and explain why the stop is taking place, and inform people when they have the right to refuse being searched. The NYCLU contends that this policing reform must accompany today's criminal justice reforms.
“It's a major undertaking to remedy the harms of broken windows policing,” said NYCLU Policy Counsel Michael Sisitzky. “Policing reform and criminal justice reform must go hand in hand. Passing the Right to Know Act is vital to repair trust between police and the communities they are supposed to protect and serve."