The City of New York has reduced the severity of a number of lower-level crimes from misdemeanors, which are criminal matters, to infractions, which are civil cases punishable by fines and community service. The crimes in question include public urination and public drinking, for example.
The changes were negotiated over the past year between the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice and the police department. They come as the result of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which Mayor de Blasio signed into law a year ago.
The Criminal Justice Reform Act is meant, in part, to keep non-dangerous people out of our courts, jails and prisons, especially when they were only involved in minor offenses. Last year, 90,000 people were detained or received summonses for drinking in public; another 18,000 were in regards to public urination.
Those on parole, as well as those who have faced at least two felony arrests in the last two years, can still be charged with misdemeanors for committing these offenses.
As we know from the case of Kalief Browder, even low-level offenders are often held at Rikers for long periods without trial. Far too often, this is because the defendant cannot afford bail. In response to Browder's having spent three years in Rikers Island without trial, Mayor de Blasio vowed to reduce court backlogs and bring down the population at Rikers.
Reduction from misdemeanors to infractions will benefit immigrant defendants
Although these changes were planned before President Trump was elected, some of his policies did help drive forward the negotiation process because these crimes often affect immigrants. The city's "broken windows policing" policies -- focusing on minor offenses like these in order to improve general order on the streets -- often have an unduly harsh effect on immigrants.
According to the NYCLU and the Legal Aid Society, even misdemeanor convictions can expose immigrants to ICE flagging and deportation. A misdemeanor marijuana conviction, for example, can result in the deportation even of green card holders.
"In the civil system, there is no chance of immigration consequences," said a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.