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Back to the bad old days? Proposal to decriminalize minor offenses causes concern

Posted: 9:02 PM, Apr 20, 2015
Updated: 2015-04-20 21:38:16-04

NEW YORK (PIX11) -- It was a scene all of 500 feet away from the entrance to NYPD Headquarters that implies that the level of respect for current laws against minor crimes is not that high.

At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall subway station early Monday afternoon, there they were.  One young man jumped the turnstile, then immediately afterward, two men passed through the adjacent turnstile together on one Metrocard swipe.  Seven seconds later, a man in business attire -- fedora, executive raincoat, nice umbrella -- stepped over a turnstile two gates over, and right after him, a guy in a gray hoodie hopped over the same turnstile.

The four fare jumps in 22 seconds are strong evidence that this minor infraction is not rare.

"A person gets caught jumping the turnstile," said city council member Rory Lancman, "It annoys me when people do it."

Despite his being annoyed, Lancman is one of the leading members of the city council who are trying to decriminalize turnstile jumping and other minor offenses.

In other words, no longer would infractions like urinating in public, spitting, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or drinking alcohol in a public space result in a ticket to criminal court. Instead, it would result in a civil court ticket, much like a parking ticket.

"Do we want to have the hammer of the criminal justice system fall down on people's heads when they're committing low level quality of life offenses?" asked Councilmember Lancman. "I think the answer is, we don't."

However, people who spoke with PIX11 News at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall subway stop (and who were not fare jumping) had mixed similar reactions to the proposed change.  All of their reactions, however, had at least a modicum of concern or criticism.

"When you find a loophole in one thing," said subway rider Tara James, "you always find another loophole in something bigger, and you have a bigger problem."

A rider who only identified himself as Mike from the Bronx said, "You'd be giving people [free] rein.  If they know they're not going to get arrested, if they've got nothing to lose, they'd absolutely be jumping the turnstiles.  You'd be increasing the problem, not decreasing it."

Michael Johnson, another subway passenger, said that decriminalizing minor offenses poses a risk. "The system of law breaks down," he said.

Johnson is actually in favor of decriminalization. Still, his point about the risk of a break down of the law is shared by many people, including some police officers who spoke with PIX11 News anonymously.

They said that if offenders face no threat of arrest, there is no incentive for them to obey the law.  So if it becomes easier for people to commit crimes, the more likely it is that crime will rise.

Ironically, though, overall crime in New York City is down from a year ago, led in large part by a significant drop in transportation and transit crimes.  They're down 13.9 percent, according to NYPD CompStat figures.

However, shooting incidents are up 2.9 percent, and murders are up 8.9 percent.

Also, on two separate occasions in the past four weeks, a loaded gun, extra ammunition and drugs were found concealed on turnstile jumpers with prior criminal records.  Facts like that contribute to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton being against the decriminalization proposal.

"That's his view," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference Monday morning.  "We have a different point of view," she said. "We're going to continue to engage proactively."

Mark-Viverito is attempting to negotiate a deal with the commissioner, who was in Boston on Monday, providing law enforcement assistance at the marathon, and was therefore not available for an interview.

Also trying to negotiate changes to the laws regarding minor infractions is Councilmember Lancman.  A message for him, and to all of the parties involved, came from straphanger Michael Johnson, who, again, favors decriminalization of minor offenses, but wants to ensure that such a change doesn't cause crime to escalate.

"Basically write a ticket for it," Johnson said. "During the commission of writing that ticket, if they should find something illegal, take the appropriate action."

The decriminalization proposal maintains that ability, according to its architect and main proponent.

"[Police] will be able to stop you, " Sao Lancman, a Democrat from Queens.  "They will be able to require you to show identification.  If you are engaged in any additional
misconduct, like carrying a firearm or there's a warrant out for your arrest, then the police will be able to do what the police need to do."