Melissa Mark-Viverito to Call for Criminal Justice Reform in First State of the City

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: NYC Council/William Alatriste)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo: NYC Council/William Alatriste) William

In her first State of the City address, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will call for the city to use more summonses and tickets in an effort to cut down on arrests for minor charges as part of a push for reforming the city’s criminal justice system.

“We need to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that ensures a fairer system, improves police community relations and addresses the fact that far too many of our young people—mostly low-income black and Latino males—are locked up at Rikers,” Ms. Mark-Viverito will say in her speech today, according to her office.

The speech, dubbed “Lifting Every Voice,” will be delivered at noon today at the James Weldon Johnson Center in the Johnson Houses, an East Harlem housing project in Ms. Mark-Viverito’s district.

Ms. Mark-Viverito’s proposal will build on proposals for reform outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio in a year that has been tumultuous for relations between the police and communities of color. The July death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes in a Staten Island park, ignited some of that tension and put a spotlight on the NYPD’s policy of making arrests for low-level offenses

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has been a fierce defender of his “broken windows” approach to policing quality of life crimes. Still, since Garner’s death, Mr. Bratton and other top NYPD officials have spoken about how officers, through re-training, will look to explore other options to crack down on those types of crimes—talking to a suspect, writing tickets, etc.—before moving to arrest.

And the city has already moved to stop making arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, opting to issue desk appearance tickets instead. Ms. Mark-Viverito today will propose expanding that policy to other “minor charges,” her office said—something she’ll argue will also save the city money.

“Whether it’s the $100,000 a year it costs to house someone on Rikers—or the public assistance programs many must access upon leaving—New Yorkers are paying this bill,” she is expected to say.

The speaker will also announce plans for legislation to allow all New Yorkers access to lawyers for civil cases, even those who have been unable to afford it in the past.

She’ll propose an “Office of the Civil Justice Coordinator,” whose “job will be simple: work to ensure legal representation is available to all.”

All people have a right to legal representation in criminal cases even if they cannot afford, but the same doesn’t hold true in civil cases. That has been of growing concern in two major areas of late—immigration and housing. Ms. Mark-Viverito has already added additional funding into the city budget to ensure legal representation is available to those facing an immigration “surge docket” in New York City, many of them minors who came to the country alone to reunite with family in New York. The City Council has also been considering legislation that would allow every New Yorker who goes to housing court access to an attorney—which the Independent Budget Office has estimated would cost $100 million.

Ms. Mark-Viverito will also call for an influx of funding to the city’s Human Rights Commission, and to expand the Human Rights Law and its protections, according to her office.

Melissa Mark-Viverito to Call for Criminal Justice Reform in First State of the City