New York Times: For Manhattan Fare Beaters, One-Way Ticket to Court May Be Over
TUESDAY, JULY 04, 2017

Tina Luongo tells New York Times fare beating arrests and prosecutions are an "unbelievable resource drain."




New York Times
For Manhattan Fare Beaters, One-Way Ticket to Court May Be Over
By James C. McKinley Jr.
June 30, 2017

For two decades, arresting people who jumped subway turnstiles has been a crucial tool of New York City policing. Fare beating was one of the petty offenses enforced aggressively on the theory that doing so would curb more serious crimes.

Even as crime has fallen to record lows in recent years, the police have continued to haul thousands of fare beaters into the city’s criminal courts, filling the calendars with cases that often end with the defendants pleading guilty and being sentenced to the time they had already been in jail.

Now, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., has decided that his office will no longer pursue criminal cases against most people arrested over fare evasion.

Instead of being brought from the police station to court, those defendants generally will be diverted into community service or social programs, and if they comply, the fare-beating charge will be dropped, Mr. Vance said. An exception will be made only when the police have strong reason to believe that the defendant is someone who poses a risk to public safety, like a sex offender.

“It’s about getting more fair outcomes without sacrificing public safety,” Mr. Vance said in an interview this week as the plan was being completed. In most cases, he said, “these guys just don’t need to be arrested and processed in the justice system.”

But the plan has yet to win the unequivocal support of the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill. On n Friday Mr. O’Neill was working with Mr. Vance’s office but had yet to reach an agreement on how and when to divert fare-evaders from criminal court. The police still need to control subway entrances, Mr. O’Neill said. “We have to take a real serious look, if we’re going to make a move like that, you know, what are the implications for public safety?” he said.

As the district attorney, however, Mr. Vance has unique leverage: If the Police Department does not embrace the diversion program, Mr. Vance’s prosecutors can simply decline to prosecute any or all of the 10,000 fare-evasion cases his office handles each year — a step his aides say he is willing to take.

The new policy, announced Friday morning along with two other programs, is the latest in a series of efforts by prosecutors, the Police Department and Mayor Bill de Blasio to recalibrate the tough enforcement of petty crimes that the city pioneered in the 1990s. Catching fare-beaters was a cornerstone in that policing strategy, started under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, along with vanquishing public urination, panhandling, street prostitution and so-called “squeegee people” who wiped car windshields with dirty rags.

While the effort was lauded in many circles for helping drive down crime in New York City, the collateral consequences of such aggressive practices, particularly for young black and Hispanic men, have come under pointed criticism, especially in a time of record-low crime. There is a growing consensus among city’s liberal policy makers, among them Mr. Vance and Mr. de Blasio, that tough enforcement of petty crimes has burdened a whole generation of New Yorkers, most of them minorities, with criminal records that undermine their job prospects.

The Police Department, in the face of a federal lawsuit, has greatly scaled back its practice of stopping and searching thousands of people in high-crime neighborhoods. Spurred by Ken Thompson’s efforts as Brooklyn district attorney, the police and prosecutors have greatly reduced the number of people prosecuted for low-level marijuana arrests. And the City Council passed a law last year creating civil tickets for minor offenses that used to lead to criminal summonses under municipal law, like public urination.

The aims of all those measures has been to shrink the number of people facing charges in Criminal Court, reduce the population at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex and free up resources for more serious crimes.

Mr. Vance’s decision on fare evasion is especially notable, given the centrality of mass transit in a city where millions of people ride the subway every day. Some City Council members and advocates for the poor have complained in recent months that fare evasion arrests amount to the criminalization of poverty, contending many people jump turnstiles because they cannot afford the $2.75 fare.

“For too long, prosecution of fare evasion as a crime has disproportionately impacted people of color, bogged down our courts, and even put immigrants at risk of deportation,” said Councilman Rory I. Lancman of Queens, the chairman of the Court and Legal Services Committee and who has led an effort to subsidize fares. ”Diverting fare evasion cases away from the criminal justice system is a smart and sensible policy.”

Brooklyn’s acting district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, also applauded Mr. Vance for finding a way to keep theft of services cases out of criminal court. “A similar policy will be implemented in Brooklyn,” he said. The Queens District attorney, Richard A. Brown, said he would closely monitor Manhattan’s initiative.

Yet Mr. de Blasio, when asked on Friday about Mr. Vance’s plan, defended the status quo. He said most of the people being arrested had been stopped before for jumping turnstiles or had an outstanding warrant. “You do it a bunch of times, you’re asking for higher consequences,” he said at a news conference about Fourth of July safety preparations. The mayor also disputed the notion poor people had no choice but to jump turnstiles. “There’s no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare,” he said. “That would create chaos.”

The police currently give three-quarters of the people they stop for jumping a turnstile or sneaking in through a subway exit gate a civil summons for the offense. But if the person lacks a valid identification or has a history of similar arrests, they are booked on a “theft of services” charge, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail, police officials said.

Last year, the police arrested about 24,600 people for theft of services and issued about 67,400 civil summons for the offense, sending the latter group of defendants to the Transit Adjudication Bureau to pay a $100 fine.

In Manhattan, 9,629 were people charged with fare evasion in 2016, making it the second most common misdemeanor, right behind assault. A third of those defendants pleaded guilty, received time-served sentences and were released. Another third were released and had the charges dismissed after avoiding arrested for six months. About 1,700 were given community service. Only 320 were sentenced to jail, the vast majority of them for less than a month. “It’s an unbelievable resource drain,” Justine M. Luongo, the attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Criminal Practice, said.

Mr. Vance’s office also intends offer a similar pre-arraignment diversion program to people arrested for the first time on a nonviolent misdemeanor charge, as his office has been doing for 16- and 17-year-olds since October. In addition, the office will begin sending about 4,000 people charged with misdemeanor drug possession each year into drug treatment programs without ever stepping foot a courtroom, replicating a program — Heroine Overdose Prevention and Education — that has drawn praise in Staten Island.

One New Yorker who said he approved of Mr. Vance’s new policy on fare evasion was Frankie Gonzalez, 54, who lives in a Midtown homeless shelter. Mr. Gonzalez said he has gotten two tickets for fare beating in the last three months, both at the 6 train station on Canal Street. The first time, Mr. Gonzalez said, he came off a M.T.A. shuttle bus and just followed a crowd through an open gate. The second time, Mr. Gonzalez said he swiped his MetroCard and the money was deducted but the turnstile did not revolve.

“People shouldn’t be locked up just because they don’t have the income,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

 

The article originally appeared in The New York Times.