New York Gives Criminals `Disappearance Tickets'

Jaywalkers and shoplifters escape punishment by flouting a novel citation system

`IT'S is a good idea gone bad,'' says Paul Shechtman, counsel to Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

Mr. Shechtman is referring to a New York system designed to relieve the burden on the courts by giving shoplifters, subway fare beaters, and others accused of misdemeanors a ticket to report to a judge in three weeks instead of two nights in jail prior to arraignment.

The problem is that the ticket, called a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT), is widely ignored by criminals.

According to the New York Police Department, 46 percent of the offenders who receive DATs do not show up for their court date. Last year, New York gave out 64,153 DATs. Thus, individuals charged with 29,510 crimes did not bother to show up for court.

``On the street it's known as the Disappearance Ticket,'' says Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Association, a business group that is concerned about crime. He adds that the system now ``emboldens'' criminals.

It is not unusual for individuals to have multiple DATs. Mr. Shechtman says the district attorney's office has found people with 20 to 40 of the misdemeanors.

One individual received three DATs for shoplifting in one day. ``The only question asked is, `Has he failed to appear in court?' Since the answer was `no' he was DATable,'' explains Shechtman, adding that criminals realize they can commit a whole series of crimes before they are required in court.

The DA's office has now produced a list of 3,000 recidivists. ``We call them the stealth bombers of the criminal justice system since they fly below the scope of the felony court,'' says Jeremy Travis, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for legal matters.

The police no longer issue the repeaters with DATs, instead taking them directly to a holding facility until they can be arraigned before a judge.

The list has helped ensure that they show up. Before the list, the repeaters missed their court date 80 percent of the time; after the list, they missed court just 20 percent of the time.

Shechtman, of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, says he believes the repeater list needs to be expanded even if it means a longer arraignment delay - the reason the program was expanded in 1989.

To avoid unconstitutional delays, Shechtman says the courts may have to be expanded as well - a costly proposition. However, he says, ``Otherwise we have effectively decriminalized crime.''

In some ways it almost seems as if that is what has happened. When an individual does not show up in court, the judge issues a bench warrant ordering the person's arrest.

However, the DA's office says there is ``very little effort'' to enforce the warrant. Instead, in most cases the city waits for the person to be arrested a second time.

``When he comes back to the court, he often gets a package deal,'' explains Shechtman. The judge agrees to combine the two crimes if the individual pleads guilty to one.

If there is a jail sentence, the prison time is counted on a concurrent basis, not a consecutive basis. ``That sends the message, you can disappear with no consequence,'' says Shechtman.

The data suggest that judges do impose ``penalties which tend to be a bit higher'' when individuals arrive in court with a warrant outstanding, says Jerome McElroy, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit organization which screens individuals prior to arraignment.

The increase in the penalty is not much, however. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor offense can be a year in jail - an extremely rare sentence. Instead, most repeat violators get up to a month at the Rikers Island jail.

The police say they are trying to improve the system. The arresting officer is now encouraged to ensure that defendants have valid identification.

``We used to have mail delivered to the East River because of phony addresses,'' the NYPD's Travis says.

In addition, the police are no longer giving DATs for some crimes such as breaking into an automobile, an offense so rampant most New York vehicles carry signs: ``No Radio or Cash.'' Instead, ``car boosters'' spend a night in jail if caught.

The police are also hoping their experiment with community policing, making foot patrolmen responsible for a specific territory, will help to enforce outstanding warrants. (On the beat with community police, Page 11.) ``It holds a lot of promise since the officer should, in theory, know the people on the beat,'' Travis says.

Travis also says the system could be improved if individuals were required in court within 48 hours, instead of three weeks.

``People forget their dentist appointment in three weeks. Immediacy is very important,'' he explains.

New York plans to try this approach in early 1994 when it opens up a ``community court'' in the midtown area.

Shechtman says he believes the city also needs to stiffen penalties for repeat violators. ``Here's a modest proposal: If you have five convictions in a five year period, you receive a mandatory six months in jail,'' the attorney says.

But Mr. McElroy is not convinced that even stiffer jail sentences ``would get the message across.''

New York's judges might also object to such tough penalties, but Shechtman says he believes the judges will relent if the sentence is combined with a three-month drug program.

Upon completion of the program, the individual would be released - and, of course, becomes eligible for another DAT.

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