IN New York City, if you're caught smoking marijuana in public, jumping the turnstile at a subway station, or shoplifting, you may be headed straight for jail.
Cracking down on such "quality of life" offenses became a trademark for Police Commissioner William Bratton, who recently announced his resignation. In the past, too many people who were issued summonses never showed up in court. Now minor offenders who lack standard I.D., are on parole or probation, or are picked up in "problem areas" such as Times Square won't be given the chance to get away. Bratton's theory: Criminals commit minor offenses as well as serious crimes. The policy works, he says, because arresting officers can check for outstanding warrants, look for guns, or ask questions about drugs.
Since the commissioner took office, New York City has witnessed the largest two-year drop in crime in its history. Bratton and other city officials can't take all the credit, however. The crime rate among the adult population is on the decline for a number of reasons, including longer prison sentences for violent offenders. Another factor is demographics. Aging baby boomers are less likely to be caught shoplifting or sneaking onto a subway train.
There are those who see the attack on quality-of-life offenses as problematic - and their concerns should be carefully considered. Crowded city jails may become even more so. Charges of racism and infringement of constitutional rights could increase. And get-tough strategies may ignore the possibility of redemption and correction. While quality-of-life offenses are law-enforcement issues, they are also moral and social issues that police can't solve alone. Schools, churches, and charities also must get involved.
But by embracing this new style of policing, Bratton and other big-city police commissioners are making a serious and important effort to respond to the will of the majority of citizens. By late 1993, crime surpassed jobs, the economy in general, and health care as the public's No. 1 concern. Graffiti scrawled on buildings and people smoking marijuana in parks only contribute to people's sense that the streets aren't safe.
In the end, what will make crackdowns like the one in New York successful is the deterrence factor. Hardened criminals may not think twice about trying to beat a subway fare, but their chances of getting caught have suddenly increased. Minor offenders, meanwhile, are more likely to realize that their crime is simply not worth the punishment.