MIDTOWN — The City Council is set to vote Wednesday on a package of legislation that will reduce the penalties for violations such as drinking alcohol and urinating in public.
Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016, offenses such as littering, public urination, unreasonable noise and violating parks rules would remain illegal but become largely civil offenses punishable with summonses.
Police will have discretion on when to issue a civil or criminal summons and the NYPD would have to develop guidance for its officers over when to issue those summonses.
"The Criminal Justice Reform Act is going to continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also creating a more fair and just system that will ensure the penalties fit the crime," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito who first introduced the idea at her 2015 State of the City address.
The 8-piece package of legislation will reduce infractions of city park rules and public urination to violations down from misdemeanors, meaning that violators will no longer receive a criminal record for these offenses. The Board of Health will have to approve the change as it relates to public urination.
A community service option in lieu of a monetary penalty will also be added.
Penalties for these violations will be capped at a day in jail, which amounts to time served. Penalties greater than time served are currently not imposed for these violations. Estimates show that 100,000 cases will be diverted from the criminal courts, 10,000 fewer people will have a criminal record for minor violations and 50,000 fewer warrants will be issued each year.
Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton are on board with the changes.
De Blasio said the legislation "will play a crucial role in building a fairer criminal justice system for all New Yorkers," and NYPD Det. Kellyann Ort said the changes allows the NYPD to "use the full range of enforcement tools."
The changes will affect a system that many feel too often punishes blacks, Latinos and the poor.
"The unequal enforcement of law and practices that happen in communities of color has had lasting intergenerational effects on families and neighborhoods, systematically destroying the futures of so many," said Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams. "Too often our young men and women are unable to find employment, secure housing or government assistance because of minor infractions."
A majority of NYPD summonses are dismissed by criminal courts. The current conviction rate is 21 percent and 99 percent of those convicted face only a fine, according to the City Council.
There are also 1.5 million outstanding warrants. There is a warrant rate of 40 to 50 percent for these low-level offenses in civil court. The NYPD also spends resources to track down and arrest people on those warrants.
The package of legislation still doesn't eliminate the concern from criminal justice reform advocates regarding the use of the "broken windows" theory of policing.
The philosophy, which has guided policing in the city for decades now and has also spread across the country, holds that cracking down on smaller offenses can thwart larger crimes.
Both de Blasio and Bratton have indicated their strong support for "broken windows" even as the mayor has instituted polices that have dramatically reduced the number of people who are stopped and frisked and arrested for small amounts of marijuana possession.
The problem, say advocates, is that police still maintain discretion over when to charge someone criminally for one of these minor offenses.
Michael Velarde, director of Organizing and Policy for Communities United for Police Reform, said the legislation "has potential to advance needed criminal justice reform," but "whether its impact is beneficial to New Yorkers in the long-run lies in the details, since the NYPD retains ultimate control over its implementation and the direction" police officers are given.
Velarde called for the passage of the "Right to Know Act," which would require officers to identify themselves and explain why the individual is being stopped or questioned. Police would also have to explain that individuals can deny consent to a search in certain instances.
Both de Blasio and Bratton oppose the legislation which has stalled after being introduced in 2014.