Legal Aid Chief Calls For Broader Change In Police Policies For Communities of Color
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 15, 2015

Seymour W. James, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, said he was pleased that the City plans to transform the summons process in hopes of making it more efficient, but he added that he hoped it would encourage broader change.

“We would like to see police policies changed to eliminate the disparate treatment of communities of color,” Mr. James told the New York Times. The vast majority of people who receive summonses are not found guilty. Last year only 27 percent of summonses resulted in a conviction, raising the possibility that officers were overusing the practice.




The New York Times
New York City Plans to Transform Summons Process
By Michael Schwirtz
April 14, 2015

When New York City announced in November that it would start issuing tickets instead of making arrests for possession of small quantities of marijuana , the state’s judges were alarmed. Already overburdened and mired in time-consuming bureaucracy, summons courts faced the prospect of having to process tens of thousands of additional tickets each year.

That change spurred plans, unveiled on Tuesday, to transform the city’s summons process in the hopes of making it more efficient for judges, lawyers and the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers charged with low-level violations each year.

The changes are part of a broad reform package announced by the state’s chief Judge, Jonathan Lippman, and Mayor Bill de Blasio that is primarily focused on clearing backlogs at state courts that keep hundreds locked up at Rikers Island for years without being convicted of a crime.

While they have not generated as much attention as Rikers Island, the changes in the summons process could have significant consequences for a far broader swath of the city. Last year, more than 350,000 summonses were issued for violations like drinking alcohol in public or riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, more than half of the total number of Criminal Court cases.

“These are people who are not hardened criminals, they are normal people,” Judge Lippman said in an interview. “They have jobs, they have families and there has got to be a way to treat them with respect and dignity and get them back to their lives.”

Central to the changes are instruments designed to prevent people from failing to show up in court, which can result in a warrant and possible arrest for even the most minor offenses. Last year, people missed court dates and were issued warrants in 38 percent of summons cases, according to court data.

This summer, summons recipients will begin receiving robocalls and text messages with reminders of court dates. The city also plans to begin a pilot program in Manhattan that will allow individuals to appear in court any time in the week before their scheduled appearance.

Many critics of the city’s law enforcement policies say summonses place a disproportionate burden on poor, mainly minority areas of the city, which are also some of the most heavily policed. One Brooklyn criminal court judge, Noach Dear, wrote in a decision a few years ago that he could not recall ever arraigning a white defendant for public drinking, perhaps the most common violation.

Last year there were 13 summonses issued by the precinct that covers the largely white Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, while in a precinct that covers part of the largely black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, there were more than 300 such summonses, according to Police Department data.

Rory Lancman, a Democratic member of the City Council from Queens who has studied the issue. said heavy use of summonses in minority areas can saddle people with a record “that follows them for their whole lives and is a constant weight on their ability to get out of poverty.”

As part of the changes announced on Tuesday, the city will begin posting quarterly data on summons enforcement broken down by precinct and race, allowing people to “download and analyze the data themselves to track trends,” the statement outlining the changes said. For the first time, the Police Department’s annual report will also include demographic information related to summonses.

Seymour W. James Jr., the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that he was pleased with this measure in particular, adding that he hoped it would spur broader change.

“We would like to see police policies changed to eliminate the disparate treatment of communities of color,” he said.

The vast majority of people who receive summonses are not found guilty. Last year only 27 percent of summonses resulted in a conviction, raising the possibility that officers were overusing the practice.

Many cases are dismissed because summons forms have been filled out improperly or because the allegations outlined by the police officer issuing the ticket never constituted a crime, said Lawrence K. Marks, the state’s first deputy chief administrative judge.

Judge Marks pointed to one case this year that was thrown out because a police officer filled in the wrong date of the offense on the summons form, and another that was dismissed because the officer wrote simply that an individual was “obstructing vehicle traffic” without explaining how.

Susan Herman, a Police Department deputy commissioner, said the department was providing additional training to officers and working to understand why summonses were dismissed. She said many of the issues could be alleviated by new summons forms, to be issued this summer, that are designed to be easier for officers to fill out.

Asked whether the low conviction rate on summonses suggested that officers were overusing them, Ms. Herman said the issue had not been discussed as part of the latest reform package.

As for marijuana summonses, they have not spiked as expected, even though arrests for low-level possession have fallen dramatically. There were 3,830 tickets issued this year as of April 5, a 7 percent increase over the same period last year, according to Police Department data.

Judge Marks said the state judiciary had done what it could, working closely with City Hall, to ease the bureaucracy surrounding summonses. But he suggested that the system could go further.

“In general, these are the least serious offenses we see,” Judge Marks said. “One might argue that at least some of these offenses don’t even belong in the criminal courts.”