New York: de Blasio Administration To Make Reforms To Non-Criminal Summons System
Common Sense Changes Will Make Summons System Easier to Navigate and More Transparent, and Will Allow City to Track and Address Racial Disparities
Changes Announced After Months of Negotiations with Community and Advocacy Groups
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) on Tuesday announced plans to revise parts of the NYC Summons process. The announcement comes after advocates voiced key questions and concerns about Mayor de Blasio’s announcement last November that individuals would receive summonses instead of being arrested for low level marijuana possession in public view.
Advocates expressed concerns about the overburdened and complex summons court system, biased police practices, collateral consequences of summonses, and lack of data transparency. The plan announced on Tuesday includes a new NYPD summons form, website, and automated call-in system to help New Yorkers more easily navigate the NYC Summons court system.
In an October 2014 report, Race, Class & Marijuana Arrests in Mayor De Blasio’s Two New Yorks: The NYPD Marijuana Arrests Crusade Continues in 2014, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and the Drug Policy Alliance noted the de Blasio Administration was on track to meet or surpass the Bloomberg 2013 marijuana arrests. Following the report’s release, the de Blasio Administration announced that New Yorkers found with small amounts of marijuana would be issued a court summons and immediately released.
This marked a shift from past arrest practices, wherein police charged people with a misdemeanor – the person was then handcuffed, taken to the precinct and held for hours, fingerprinted and photographed, and eventually released with a court date and a virtually permanent arrest record.
While cautiously optimistic about this policy change, advocates warned that, by simply issuing summonses instead of making arrests, NYPD could add roughly 30,000 people a year to the docket of the already overburdened NYC Summons Court. For over a decade the NYPD has written an average of 500,000 criminal court summonses a year for petty offenses ("violations”), such as possessing an open beer can, riding a bike on the sidewalk, and disorderly conduct.
Responding to a summons often means missing work, travelling a long distance, or triggering deportation proceedings for non citizens. When people who are given a criminal court summons for a violation fail to appear in court, the criminal court issues an arrest warrant.
When police officers find a person with an outstanding warrant for a criminal court summons, they commonly make a custodial arrest and book the individual. Approximately 1.1 million people or 1 in 8 New Yorkers have open warrants because they failed to show up for court.
"When over 1 million New Yorkers have outstanding warrants for low-level violations, something is amiss”, said Alyssa Aguilera, political director, VOCAL-NY. “A summons should be used to avoid unnecessary arrests, not to perpetuate them.
"We applaud Mayor de Blasio for making much needed changes to ensure flexibility and transparency for New York City's summons system," Aguilera said. "These changes will most benefit low-income people of color, many of whom are unable to adjust their work schedules and family responsibilities to make a court appearance.
"Also, by collecting and reporting demographic data on summonses we can better monitor activity so that communities of color are not bearing an outsized burden of enforcement," Aguilera said. "We look forward to a continued partnership with the Mayor's office to eliminate the 'Tale of Two Cities' that exists for people of color in the criminal justice system."
“We welcome the reforms announced by the de Blasio Administration to reduce incarceration and provide greater clarity, flexibility and transparency within New York City's summons system”, said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of organizing, Communities United for Police Reform. “These changes are a positive step in the right direction by making the courts and criminal justice system more functional for New Yorkers, particularly those of low income and people of color.
"The public release of demographic data on summons enforcement will also be critical to improving fairness in our city, and we must engage in systemic reform to end the discriminatory targeting of New Yorkers that fuels disparities within our criminal justice system,” Gonzalez said.
Other concerns include the lack of transparency within the summons process. Unlike arrest data, summons data are not collected by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, and race and location of the police encounter are not currently tracked by NYPD.
Without this important data collection, it would prove impossible to assess the new marijuana policy and disparities in its enforcement. Under the policy announced on Tuesday, these data would be collected and reported.
The administration’s announcement of the revised NYPD summons form, website, and automated system is an important first step to increasing transparency between New Yorkers and the criminal justice system. However, because of ongoing concerns around biased policing practices, advocates demanded the de Blasio administration continue its work to comprehensively address the collateral consequences that arise due to these arrests, address remaining issues with summonses, and end the disproportionate enforcement that occurs in communities of color.
“Legal Aid Society is encouraged by the reforms that seek to make the criminal and summons court process more flexible and accessible for all New Yorkers," said Cynthia Conti-Cook, Special Litigation Unit staff attorney, Legal Aid Society. "Especially given the severe consequences summonses can have for some, we also look forward to expanded access to legal counsel in summons parts.
"We hope, however, that in the near future the Mayor’s office will direct the NYPD to reduce the number of summonses, especially in low-income communities of color, and end the City’s reliance on revenue generated from summons court completely,” Conti-Cook said.
“Returning racial information to summons forms has been a top priority,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Only with tracking and regular public reporting on who is getting tickets and for what can New Yorkers start to understand the consequences of Broken Windows policing.”
Advocates continue to push the de Blasio Administration to establish a process to monitor, investigate, and address racial, gender, age and geographic disparities in health and socioeconomic outcomes across administrative systems, including the criminal justice system. The de Blasio Administration should also issue a findings report and make recommendations to reduce unwarranted disparities, as was recommended by the New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance in the 2014 publication, "Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy."
“We applaud the de Blasio Administration for listening to advocates and tackling the inescapable maze that is the NYC summons system," said Kassandra Frederique, policy manager, Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Increased transparency is always a sign of good governance.
"As the de Blasio Administration moves forward with their 'Justice reboot,' let’s be sure to put the whole criminal system on the table," Frederique ssaid. "We welcome continued conversations about further transparency, increasing accountability, and a focus on systemic change to repair the harms that have come from years of over-criminalizing and over-policing certain communities.”
Photo of NYPD Police Chief Bill Bratton (holding weed) and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: Spencer Platt/Observer