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Will New York go easy on low-level offenders?

The New York City Council has scheduled a Monday hearing on proposed legislation that would turn some minor crimes into civil offenses in an effort to lessen the load on city courts and law enforcement.

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    New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton discusses crime statistics as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, listens as during a news conference at police headquarters earlier this month. Both Bratton and de Blasio are in favor of the proposed legislation.
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The New York City Council could approve a new set of bills that would reduce the city’s use of criminal enforcement for minor infractions.

The Council will introduce the set of eight proposals, called the Criminal Justice Reform Act, at a hearing Monday.

Covering a range of transgressions currently classified as crimes, including littering, having open containers of alcohol, violating park rules, and excessive noise, the proposed laws would add the possibility of civil penalties for the offenses, instead of criminal ones.

The act would not affect minor crimes listed under state law.

The plan is backed by much of the city council including its speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also expressed support for the legislation in an emailed statement to Bloomberg from his office.

“We will continue to work closely with Speaker Mark-Viverito and the council to provide NYPD with more tools to enforce the law without inhibiting our officers’ ability to keep New York City the safest big city in America,” Mr. de Blasio’s spokeswoman Monica Klein wrote.

The effort to reduce penalties for these types of administrative code infractions is in line with the council’s goal of making punishments fairer and less racially unbalanced.

“We know that the system has been really rigged against communities of color in particular,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said to The New York Times.

“The question has always been, what can we do in this job to minimize unnecessary interaction with the criminal justice system, so that these young people can really fulfill their potential?” she added.

Initially reluctant to support Mark-Viverito’s agenda when she announced it last year, Mr. Bratton now backs the motion after lengthy discussion between the council and the New York City Police Department. In its current form, the package would provide for general punishment reduction while still giving Bratton’s officers the flexibility to act on their perception of the severity of legal breaches.

“We have been supportive of having a civil option for the police,” Police Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Stephen P. Davis told the Times. “It provides us more discretion.”

The new legislative package would also be aimed at clearing the city’s court system of low-level offenders. New York issues hundreds of thousands of court summons annually, slightly more than one fourth of which produce a conviction. Furthermore, 38 percent of summons went unanswered and resulted in warrants for failure to appear in court, augmenting the burden on the city's judicial system.

In addition to outlining the new policies for the lineup of minor infractions, the act would require the police department to provide “guidance to its officers on when to use criminal enforcement as opposed to civil enforcement,” require the department to release quarterly statistics and information on when officers used civil and criminal enforcement, statistics on court summonses, and would allow certain violations to be punishable with community service instead of fines.

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