NEW YORK CITY — The City Council voted Wednesday to approve eight pieces of legislation that will reduce the penalties for violations such as drinking and urinating in public.
The main piece of legislation amending the city's administrative code passed by a vote of 40 to 9.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who proposed the changes in her 2015 state of the city address, said the changes will "bring greater equity and justice to our city."
Advocates for the bill said too many black, Latino and poor city residents were being arrested and saddled with criminal records for relatively minor violations that hinder their ability to get student loans or apply for certain licenses or jobs.
"We all know the majority of people that happens to don't look like me," said Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who is white.
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. The NYPD is required to develop guidance for its officers about when to issue a summons or to arrest an individual.
Advocates said the changes will ease a court system already overburdened because of the violations. The City Council estimates 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.
There are also 1.5 million outstanding warrants for violations that largely end with fines or just one day in jail or time served.
But not everyone was pleased with the legislation.
"What we're doing today is taking the teeth out of the law. The law is supposed to act as a deterrent to would-be offenders," said Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich. "We are sending the wrong message that your actions don't have consequences."
Minority Leader Steven Matteo said the legislation represented a "retreat" from the "broken windows" theory of policing, which holds that cracking down on smaller offenses can thwart larger crimes. Many credit it with the city's record-low crime statistics.
"We don't want people to think it's OK to urinate in public. We want real consequences," Mateo said.
Brooklyn Councilwoman Inez Barron said she felt the discretion afforded police on when to make a violation a civil or criminal offense made the changes "arbitrary."
But Barron voted for the legislation because she felt it would be an "opportunity for people to not be put in the criminal justice system."
Other changes the laws will make include reducing 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. It also adds a community service option in lieu of a monetary penalty.
The NYPD will also have to report quarterly on the number of civil and criminal summonses and desk appearance tickets issued, broken down by race, gender and police precinct where issued.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton supports the changes, as does Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is expected to sign the legislation into law.
“I got what I wanted for my officers. They retain the right in every instance to make an arrest when appropriate. What the Council is getting is what they wanted, which is to reduce the penalties, to change the process by which some of these penalties are dealt with," Bratton said Wednesday. “There’s common ground here."