Starting this fall, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance will no longer criminally prosecute the majority of individuals charged with fare evasion—a move that was met with a mixture of praise and caution.
Beginning in September, Vance said he will no longer prosecute the overwhelming majority of individuals charged with theft of services—also known as turnstile jumping—unless there is a public safety reason that necessitates doing so.
New data from the State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services indicated that police have arrested roughly 8,625 people for turnstile jumping this year to date—and that 89 percent of arrested individuals were black and Latino, according to DNAinfo New York. The data also showed that about 25 percent of those individuals spent time in jail for the offense.
Vance said the criminal prosecution of low-level, nonviolent offenses “should not be a part of a reformed 21st-century justice system.”
“Absent a demonstrated public safety risk, criminally prosecuting New Yorkers accused of these offenses does not make us safer,” he said. “Today, by committing to divert these misdemeanor cases out of Criminal Court in Manhattan, we will further eliminate unnecessary incarceration, and reduce the risks of deportation, loss of housing, and loss of employment that often accompany a criminal prosecution.”
Vance said that since 2010, his office has worked with the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to end the prosecution of “tens of thousands” of low-level cases that “needlessly bog down our Criminal Court and swell our city’s jail population.”
“In Manhattan, we are embracing the role that District Attorneys must play to achieve the closure of Rikers Island, and proving that New York can safely reduce crime and incarceration at the same time,” Vance continued.
He said that last year, nearly 10,000 individuals were arrested for theft of services, a class A misdemeanor. In the coming months, he will work with the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to lower the number of people prosecuted in Manhattan, which will involve issuing summonses instead of arresting people, offering pre-arraignment diversion and issuing a desk appearance ticket.
If individuals complete the terms of a diversion program, the office won’t prosecute the case and they will not have to appear in court. Their records would also be sealed. But he said that the office will continue to prosecute people who pose a clear threat to public safety.
Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said that a similar policy will be implemented in Brooklyn and noted that, like Vance, he participates in in the Project Reset pilot program, a program in which 16- and 17-year-old first-time arrestees arrested for low-level offenses can participate in a counseling program. Gonzalez also touted a new initiative that allows eligible drug dependent defendants to be “diverted from jail and straight into treatment in lieu of prosecution.”
“I have been fully committed to reducing arrests and criminal prosecutions of low-level offenses by supporting the issuance of civil summonses and using diversion and other approaches that reduce our reliance on incarceration.” Gonzalez said in a statement. “I commend DA Vance for his innovative new approach of handling theft of services cases, which disproportionately affect disadvantaged New Yorkers.”
Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society, urged district attorneys in the other boroughs to follow suit.
“Each year, thousands of Legal Aid clients’ lives are upended from these arrests in the outer boroughs, and now ICE exploits those convictions to put individuals in removal proceedings,” Luongo said in a statement. “One’s chances of a second shot should not depend on the borough you are arrested in.”
Sixteen groups have endorsed the Swipe it Forward campaign, including the Coalition to End Broken Windows, Why Accountability, Equality for Flatbush, NYC Shut It Down and Queens Neighborhoods United. The campaign calls for offering free rides to individuals who cannot afford the subway fare.
Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, said that the organization is pleased that Vance has come to acknowledge the problem but said that it would like to see Mayor Bill de Blasio take more longer-term steps to address the underlying issues.
“We are happy that after more than six years in office, the Manhattan District Attorney has finally listened to the people of New York City and acknowledged the profound harm caused by prosecuting low-level cases like fare evasion in criminal court,” Malinowski said. “However, we know the harm begins the moment the handcuffs go on, and ultimately it falls to the Mayor and the NYPD to eliminate all arrests for fare evasion and to provide a transportation system that is accessible to all New Yorkers, no matter how much money is in their wallets.”
Mayoral candidate and activist Robert Gangi—who has spent decades leading social justice groups such as the Police Reform Organizing Project and the Correctional Association of New York—told the Observer in a telephone interview that it’s possible “that it represents a constructive positive step” but said that the policy should be system-wide and that it is unclear “exactly what it means to stop criminal prosecution of these cases.”
“Until it actually goes into effect, which won’t be until the fall…we can’t embrace it or even say with certainty that it’s a good step,” Gangi said. “It’s just an announcement. There’ve been announcements by other DAs and other government officials like de Blasio. He has said on a number of occasions that NYPD has ended low level marijuana possession arrests. It is not even close to being true.”