WSJ: Manhattan D.A. Aims to Stop Prosecuting Subway-Fare Evaders
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2017

Tina Luongo speaks with the Wall Street Journal on Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance's policy change on how turnstile jumping is prosecuted.




The Wall Street Journal
Manhattan D.A. Aims to Stop Prosecuting Subway-Fare Evaders
By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Corinne Ramey
Sept. 14, 2017

The Manhattan district attorney’s office says it has largely stopped prosecuting subway-fare evaders, offering many offenders alternatives such as counseling and community service—a move being watched closely by other boroughs.

The move, announced this summer, has ignited a citywide debate about how to handle a minor crime once central to New York City policing.

While Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. ’s office said it started implementing the policy earlier this month, the New York Police Department and other city prosecutors are continuing to deliberate when to treat turnstile jumping as a crime.

Sen. Jesse Hamilton and Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, both state Democrats, introduced legislation in March that would decriminalize turnstile jumping under state law.

For the NYPD, thwarting fare evasion since the early ‘90s has been a cornerstone of broken-windows policing, the idea that focusing on minor offenses prevents more serious ones.

But decades later, things have changed, Mr. Vance said. “We can’t ignore what’s going on around us and prosecute using the same policies that we used in the 1980s,” he said in a recent interview.

Today, officials are more attuned to the fact that some of these offenders suffer from mental illness, and furthermore, convictions could lead to deportation for undocumented immigrants, Mr. Vance said.

Currently, turnstile jumpers receive a civil summons and a maximum fine of $100 for each of their first three offenses. If an offender has an open warrant, is on probation or parole, has a recent felony arrest in the transit system or has been caught three times, police arrest him.

Mr. Vance is now encouraging officers to issue more summonses before arresting offenders, and giving those who get arrested the option of participating in a diversion program. If they don’t participate, they will be arraigned for the misdemeanor offense and their case will be active for up to six months.

“Isn’t it smarter to have someone actually sit down with a kid and find out what’s going on than to simply process them through the system?” Mr. Vance asked.

About 76% of the people stopped at turnstiles citywide are issued a summons, police say. Last year, nearly 26,000 people were arrested for theft of services for avoiding a turnstile, about 89% of whom were black or Hispanic, according to state data. That year, about 7,000 people spent time in jail—either as punishment or while awaiting court dates.

Ricardo Garcia, who was arrested for fare evasion last fall, said he swiped into the subway then let in someone he didn’t know at a station in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Police arrested him because of his criminal record, said Mr. Garcia, 48 years old, who does outreach for an advocacy group Vocal-NY.

“All I did was open the door for him,” said Mr. Garcia, who spent a week in jail on Rikers Island for evading the fare. “They could have given me a fine or community service.”

Proponents of criminalizing turnstile jumping contend people should be held accountable for breaking the law. Historically, police arrested turnstiles jumpers to help make the subway system safer. Major felonies in the city’s transit system declined 43% from 2000 to 2016.

“Not everyone who is jumping the turnstile is doing it because of economics, I assure you,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in August. “And it’s still not appropriate. And, so, we’re still going to enforce but less and less with arrests.”

Critics of arresting fare evaders say criminalizing the act is unfair to the poor and could lead to deportation. “People jump a turnstile to get to work, to doctors’ appointments, to shelter appointments,” said Tina Luongo, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

Police don’t give information directly to the federal government, although they do send fingerprints to a state database that federal officials can access, according to Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters.

Police officials had discussed a change to the policy with Mr. Vance but were alarmed at the definitive language in his announcement, according to senior law-enforcement authorities.

Former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said he was concerned there would be an increase in fare evasion because Mr. Vance made the announcement before specifics of the policy were finalized. “They already have people thinking you’re not going to arrest people anymore,” Mr. Bratton said.

Mr. Vance said his office held productive talks with the police department for several years, but his office ultimately needed to make a decision. A spokeswoman for Mr. Vance said since the policy was announced the number of arrests has decreased.

District attorneys in other boroughs have differed on how to handle the issue. Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez called Mr. Vance’s move “an innovative new approach,” and said he would implement a similar policy by the end of the year.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said she is planning to begin using panels of community members, outside the court system, to hear many theft-of-services cases. No start date has been set. These panels could assign community service and participation in other programs. Offenders also could be tried in the court system and end up with a criminal record if convicted. The office is studying the issue and weighing whether changing its policy would affect public safety, a spokeswoman said.

The Queens district attorney’s office is monitoring what happens in Manhattan, a spokesman said, but noted that most offenders aren’t criminally prosecuted. “We think the current NYPD policy is sound, logical and fair,” he added.

The Richmond County district attorney’s office doesn’t intend to change how it prosecutes such cases, a spokesman said.



This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.