Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Robert Neuwirth, City Limits - I spent 24 hours in the slammer the other day. My crime? Well, the police couldn’t tell me when they locked me up. The prosecutor and judge couldn’t either, when I was arraigned the following day. I found out for myself when I researched the matter a few days after being released: I had been cited for walking my dog off the leash - once, six years ago.

Welcome to the ugly underside of the zero-tolerance era, where insignificant rule violations get inflated into criminal infractions. Here’s how it worked with me: a gaggle of transit cops stopped me after they saw me walk between two subway cars on my way to work. This, they told me, was against the rules. They asked for ID and typed my name into a hand-held computer. Up came that old citation that I didn’t know about and they couldn’t tell me about. I was immediately handcuffed and brought to the precinct. There, I waited in a holding cell, then was fingerprinted and had the contents of my shoulder bag inventoried. I could hardly believe it: I was being arrested without ever having committed a crime. . .

I was held overnight in the Midtown North Precinct lock-up (shoelaces and belt confiscated, meals courtesy of the McDonald’s dollar menu). In the morning, my fellow convicts and I were led, chain-gang style, to the Manhattan Community Court next door. The judge there dismissed the charge against me - because no one ever does time for that kind of crime. A few days later, at Brooklyn’s central court, my warrant was lifted for "time served" - again because no one is ever locked up for breaking the leash law. . .

With zero tolerance, we have finally done it: We have criminalized everyday life. After all, in the course of their life people sometimes ride their bikes on the sidewalks. And once upon a time not too long ago, it was normal to go into the parks after dark. My friends and I did all the time, particularly if we had time to kill before or after the opera, the symphony, or a jazz or rock concert. We walked brazenly between subway cars. Some of us even - horror of horrors - played music on the street or in the subway without a license. And, though my parents would not be happy to know it even now, we sometimes drank beer in public - making sure, in an important but legally meaningless gesture, that the bottle was in a paper bag. If I did any of this on a regular basis today, I’d probably be considered a behavioral recidivist and sent to Riker’s Island.

After a dip in 2002, the number of "quality of life" summonses rose under Mayor Bloomberg to more than 700,000 in fiscal 2004. They’ve declined since then to 527,000 in fiscal 2008-still higher than under the previous mayor. . . In 2007, the last year for which the court system published statistics, the number of arraignments for infractions and violations was the highest in 10 years - 20 percent greater than the previous year.


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