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Queens Chronicle

OPINION Dismiss warrants for all decriminalized offenses

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Posted: Thursday, April 4, 2019 10:30 am

Late last month, three of our city’s district attorneys — Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn, Darcel Clark in the Bronx and Cy Vance in Manhattan — announced their support for a plan I proposed to dismiss all open summons warrants for certain low-level offenses that were effectively decriminalized by the passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Act in 2016.

I made the request in a letter to all of our city’s district attorneys after learning that, as of February 2019, there were a staggering 752,118 open warrants in New York City Summons Court. It is reasonable to believe that hundreds of thousands of these warrants are for so-called CJRA offenses, including carrying an open container of alcohol, littering, unreasonable noise and violating park rules like being in a park after dark.

It makes no sense to keep outstanding warrants on the books — exposing people to arrest on just the warrant — when the underlying offenses have already been mostly removed from the criminal justice system. The CJRA fundamentally changed how these quality-of-life offenses were enforced in New York City. Police officers can still hold individuals accountable for their actions, but instead of issuing criminal summonses, they are mandated to civil tickets as a default. The results to date are staggering: from 2016 to 2018, the number of criminal summonses issued in New York City for CJRA offenses has dropped 94.5 percent — from almost 135,000 to fewer than 7,500.

Despite this, people who received a criminal summons for a low-level offense prior to the CJRA could still have them hanging over their heads years later. If someone fails to appear in court to settle a criminal summons, a warrant will then be issued for his or her arrest, even though the person could not be arrested for the underlying offense. These arrests serve no public safety purpose and are a waste of precious taxpayer dollars. Plus, the consequences of an arrest are enormous. Spending just a night in jail can disrupt a person’s life — putting employment, housing or childcare at risk.

This would not be the first time that our district attorneys have worked to eliminate outstanding summons warrants. In 2017, four district attorney’s offices together dismissed approximately 644,500 low-level summons warrants that were more than ten years old. That effort made our justice system fairer and helped reduce the risk of criminal justice involvement for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

Overpolicing of certain communities has long meant that criminal summonses have been disproportionately issued to black and Latino New Yorkers, and the consequences of open warrants have also largely fallen on these individuals. Clearing outstanding summons warrants is a meaningful step towards redressing the damage that discriminatory policies have had on communities of color.

I commend District Attorneys Gonzalez, Clark and Vance for their support of this proposal that will remove the threat of unnecessary collateral consequences from the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.

Rory I. Lancman is New York City Councilman for the 24th District, in central and northern Queens, Chairman of the Committee on the Justice System and a candidate for Queens District Attorney.

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