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Black New Yorkers make up half of misdemeanor prosecutions in NYC, study finds

Black New Yorkers were disproportionately charged with misdemeanors in 2019 and 2020, even though such cases rarely resulted in convictions, a new study from the Center for Court Innovation said.

Of the 189,000 misdemeanor prosecutions in 2019 and 2020 in New York City, like vending without a license and aggressive solicitation, Black people accounted for 49.8% of those charged despite making up just about a quarter of the city’s population, according to the study, which was released on Thursday. The report also found that Latino New Yorkers were overrepresented in prosecutions of these minor crimes.

“The data doesn’t prove bias, it just proves we’re getting inequitable outcomes,” said Michael Rempel, one of the authors of the study. “Whatever the reasons for the outcome, the upshot is we’re looking at vast over-involvement of Black and brown people in a misdemeanor justice system that doesn’t ultimately promote either accountability or fairness.”

Just 12% of the misdemeanor arrests in New York City resulted in a conviction in 2019 and 2020 combined, and only 9% brought a jail sentence. About a third resulted in a plea deal to a lesser offense, like a non-criminal violation.

Although the majority of those arrested for these minor crimes were not found guilty of a criminal violation, researchers said those caught up in the system still paid a cost while waiting in a holding cell for as long as 24 hours until an arraignment or navigating multiple hearings through an opaque court system.

“The punishment is from the process,” said Rempel, who is now director of the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College.

The study examined 31 misdemeanor charges and found that most of them stemmed from four violations: third-degree assault, petit larceny, minor drug possession, or driving with a suspended or revoked license.

Three of the five misdemeanor charges more likely to be levied against Black people were victimless, nonviolent crimes that are dependent on a police officer’s discretion, not a civilian complaint, including resisting arrest, obstructing government administration and giving false information, also known as false personation. That racial disparity “suggests that there could be explicit or implicit bias in these cases,” Rempel said.

The resisting arrest charge recently became a point of contention in Manhattan. The borough’s new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, promised during his campaign last year that he would not prosecute those who resist arrest if the charge isn’t accompanied by allegations of other crimes. Of this and other misdemeanors, he wrote: “The punishments are disproportionately harsh, and fall disproportionately on the backs of people of color.”

Bragg followed through on this shortly after taking office last month, but soon softened his position in the face of criticism that he was going easy on repeat offenders as violent crime in the city was spiking. While the report doesn’t mention Bragg, its data back up his original assertion that the NYPD overwhelmingly uses the resisting arrest charge against Black people. In the two years studied, 65% of those arrested for resisting arrest were Black.

In response to the report, NYPD spokesperson Jessica McRorie said the department “has been forging fundamental changes in policing” over the last eight years. McRorie cited neighborhood policing, which emphasizes individual officers’ engagement with the communities they patrol and a more narrowed focus on stopping the “drivers” of violence.

“The NYPD responds to and addresses crime complaints from the very communities it serves and we focus on areas where the highest concentrations of crime exist,” McRorie said in a statement to Gothamist. “These communities not only deserve but demand that police respond to reports of crime and apprehend those responsible.”

Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor in Manhattan and president of the nonprofit Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, also reviewed the report for Gothamist and said the racial disparities might be affected by geography, because certain neighborhoods are more heavily policed — which he said is justified.

“If we’re getting a lot of crime reports out of a certain neighborhood, I don’t know why we wouldn’t send more resources there,” he said. “You want to send your police where the crime is.”

But he found the data on crimes involving police discretion, like resisting arrest, troubling.

Aborn also said there must be some accountability for even low-level unlawful conduct.

“We have to ask ourselves whether or not as a society we’re going to insist on accountability for violating the law,” he said. “But accountability does not have to be tantamount to jail. Accountability can be taking steps to avoid future criminal conduct. That’s why diversion is so important.”

Robert Gangi of the Manhattan-based Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) released a study on racial discrepancies in arrests last week that mirrored what the Center for Court Innovation found.

“NYPD policing is blatantly racist,” Gangi said, pointing to years of arrest data his group has crunched showing similar racial disparities. “It’s a function of focus, and a focus of policy, based on where cops are deployed and the instructions they’re given. It’s purposeful, not accidental.”

PROP monitors arraignments in the city’s criminal courts. Gangi said he sat in on 14 arraignments in Manhattan court on Thursday, and all the defendants were Black or brown, with most facing low-level charges. Some were unhoused and mentally ill, and all but one walked out of the courtroom without jail time, he said.

And yet, he said, they were still harmed by the process.

“Targeting, harassing, sending a message to low-income people of color that we are policing you, we are constraining you, and we are in one way or another communicating to you, intentional or not, that your lives … don’t matter as much as white people.”

The report lists several recommendations for making law enforcement more racially equitable, including legalizing or decriminalizing certain violations disproportionately enforced against people of color, like misdemeanors that don’t involve violence such as property loss, low-level drug possession, subway turnstile jumping and prostitution. Such recommendations would require changing state law.

State Sen. Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, who chairs the Senate Committee on Crime and Correction, also reviewed the report at Gothamist’s request. In a written statement she said it “shows that even after years of reform efforts, the NYPD’s biased practices continue to cause trauma in our communities. The harm that is caused by the stark racially disparate arrest practices of the NYPD leads to short-term and long-term disruptions in the lives of many New Yorkers.”

Like with the recent decriminalization of marijuana, Salazar said the legislature should decriminalize other low-level offenses in order to reduce arrests, lower incarceration, and stop racial disparities in policing.

The Center for Court Innovation, the New York nonprofit that published the study, was founded in part by the New York State Unified Court System. Its researchers identify ways to lower the jail population. They used data from the state Office of Court Administration for the report.

Researchers also pointed to a study in Boston that showed misdemeanor prosecutions lead to greater rates of rearrest. They recommended that certain offenses be handled outside of criminal court, and called for community service or other programs for those charged with nonviolent property crimes because such behavior, they said, often stems from poverty. The city already has diversion programs in which defendants are offered mental health or drug treatment, for example, in lieu of going to jail.

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