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No risk to public safety in dismissal of decade-old bench warrants

CYRUS R. VANCE JR. | 9/14/2017, 3:21 p.m.
As Manhattan’s district attorney, it is my responsibility to make our criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and more effective ...
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Wikipedia/Contributed

As Manhattan’s district attorney, it is my responsibility to make our criminal justice system fairer, more efficient and more effective for all. And if we are going to build a more just system, we must begin by safely reducing unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system. Each new initiative contemplated by my office is scrutinized through that lens, and if a past policy inhibits that goal or contributes to an injustice, we have a duty to reform it.

That is why last month I appeared in a Manhattan courtroom to dismiss more than 240,000 bench warrants that are at least 10 years old, and my colleagues in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens district attorney’s offices simultaneously dismissed more than 400,000 additional warrants. These warrants were originally issued for failure to pay tickets for minor, nonviolent offenses, including drinking alcohol in public, being in a park after dark or riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, subjecting those individuals to arrest and other harsh penalties.

There are approximately 1.5 million open summons warrants citywide, the bulk of which have been disproportionately issued to people of color. Many of these individuals do not even know they have outstanding warrants. But when left unresolved, individuals with decades old warrants are subject to automatic arrest when questioned or stopped by the police. The devastating consequences that follow an arrest and criminal record for a minor offense can ruin individual lives and communities, contributing to obstacles to employment, housing problems, loss of educational opportunities and possibly subjecting undocumented immigrants to deportation.

As district attorney, I am responsible for keeping Manhattan communities safe, a responsibility I do not take lightly. I am confident that the dismissal of decade-old or more low-level warrants for those who have not been arrested for at least 10 years will pose no threat to public safety. In fact, dismissing these warrants will bring law enforcement and communities closer together. Without having old warrants having over their heads, individuals will not fear reporting real crimes, making everyone safer. Those with dismissed warrants will now have peace of mind that a minor infraction they committed more a decade ago will not affect their lives today, giving them the opportunity for a new beginning and the chance to engage productively in their communities. In addition, these warrants will no longer bog down the court system, and their dismissal will allow us to focus time, energy and resources on more serious offenses.

Last year, in partnership with the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio, I announced the Manhattan Summons Initiative under which the NYPD would no longer arrest and my office would no longer criminally prosecute most low-level, non-violent violations and infractions. These changes led to 11,000 fewer low-level cases referred to my office in 2016, sparing thousands of New Yorkers from unnecessary arrest, and clearing backlogs in the court system to allow speedier trials for those in jail awaiting prosecution for serious offenses. If we are determined to close Rikers Island, we must speed up our court system. Recently, I announced that my office also will no longer prosecute the overwhelming majority of turnstile jumping cases, charging only those cases in which there is a demonstrated public safety reason to do so. Instead, most of those arrested for turnstile jumping now will be eligible for diversion and have their cases dismissed if they complete a one-day counseling program. Like the backlog of summons warrants, the prosecution of turnstile jumping disproportionately punishes those struggling with poverty, particularly among young Black and Hispanic men, and this policy will present an opportunity for intervention, not incarceration.

Similarly, our new Manhattan Hope Program will divert individuals arrested for low-level drug offenses into treatment programs instead of jail. This new initiative will design plans to fit the specific needs of those in the program, including treatment, recovery and other specialized services. Up to 4,100 individuals annually will be eligible for consideration to participate in the program without ever having to step foot in a courtroom.

Dismissal of outdated warrants and non-prosecution of low-level, non-violent offenses are important steps to a reformed 21st century criminal justice system. Without a risk to public safety, we can promote fairness, strengthen the trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve, and improve the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr. is the New York County district attorney.