New York City's prosecutors, police and probation officials said
yesterday that they would begin cracking down on a core group of as many
9,700 people who repeatedly commit petty crimes like prostitution, public
drinking and drug use, but serve little jail time.
The plan, Operation Spotlight, is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's latest
twist on an idea popularized by his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani: that
the best way to keep overall crime down is to focus on small offenses that
damage the quality of life, while relying on a huge, aggressive police
presence on the streets.
But the new administration's approach, shaped in a time of tighter
budgets and a smaller police force, is at once more focused on certain
offenders and also broader in the number of agencies involved and the
potential impact. Mr. Bloomberg, noting that reported crime continues to
decline in almost all major categories, said yesterday he wanted to use
only the police, but also prosecutors, the courts and probation officials
focus on petty criminals.
"From beginning to end," Mr. Bloomberg said, "from the police officer
arrests a persistent offender, to the prosecutor who asks for bail, to the
judge who imposes sentence, to the probation officer who monitors his or
release, everyone is going to be focusing on the career misdemeanor
Mr. Bloomberg announced his plan at City Hall with Police Commissioner
Raymond W. Kelly; three of the five district attorneys and senior aides
the others; the chief administrative judge, Jonathan Lippman; the probation
commissioner, Martin Horn; and the criminal justice coordinator, John
Feinblatt, one architect of the plan, which begins July 1.
The 9,700 figure cited yesterday was based on a statistical model
developed by Mr. Feinblatt's office, officials said, and does not reflect
list of suspects whom the police intend to round up. Rather, under the
program, when someone is arrested and identified as a repeat misdemeanor
offender the police will speed processing of the evidence, and the defendant
will be arraigned in a special part of Criminal Court in each borough, where
the case will receive priority treatment, the mayor said. Prosecutors will
highlight the case and recommend strong sentences, he said.
While judges have discretion over sentencing, an aide to Mr. Bloomberg
said he expected they would mete out harsher punishments to some of the
repeat offenders. Some defendants could get as much as a year in jail
the maximum for some misdemeanors or agree to court-ordered drug
treatment under such a threat.
Chronic offenders on probation will be more closely monitored, ensuring
for example that they complete drug treatment, Mr. Bloomberg said. Probation
violators will more quickly face revocation hearings, he said.
This differs from the Giuliani administration's strategy, which churned
tens of thousands of petty offenders through the criminal justice system.
While they were checked for warrants and some were questioned about other
crimes, most were released after 24 hours or sentenced to community service.
Critics complained the courts were overwhelmed. Bloomberg officials said
they did not expect Operation Spotlight to tax the courts or Rikers Island,
where these offenders would serve jail time.
Underlying the new program is the statistical analysis by Mr. Feinblatt's
office showing nearly 28 percent of all nonfelony crimes prosecuted in the
city misdemeanors and violations were committed by 6 percent
of the defendants. That same analysis found that roughly 9,700 defendants
were arrested at least three times last year.
"These are the people who deal drugs, deface storefronts, and steal from
our retail establishments," Mr. Bloomberg said. "They drive away tourists,
they discourage shoppers, they devalue our neighborhoods, they hurt our
This is the third and broadest effort by Mr. Bloomberg and Commissioner
Kelly to build on the zero tolerance strategies of Mr. Giuliani. While the
plan recognizes that the Police Department is operating with thousands fewer
officers and scant resources, Mr. Feinblatt said it was based on "good
criminal justice policy" rather than budget concerns.
The strategy of focusing on low-level offenses was also a foundation
Mr. Giuliani's crime-fighting successes. Known as the `'broken windows"
theory, it says that if smaller annoyances like broken windows
are left unfixed, they will breed larger crime.
Defense lawyers and civil libertarians had mixed reactions. Susan
Hendricks, a senior lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which represents poor
defendants, said past punitive approaches failed.
"If this approach is focused more on treatment and the city is going
commit the resources to ensure there are enough treatment slots, then that
would be something new and it could work," she said. "We're not in favor
crime either, and something that is effective at breaking the cycle of
recidivism, something that's effective, is something we'd support."
Christopher Dunn, of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, "The
immediate concern that we have is the role of the courts in this proposal
and whether or not defendants will get a fair trial in this special court
And one veteran jurist in Criminal Court said solutions to the seemingly
endless parade of repeat petty offenders lay elsewhere, with remedies to
root problems of drugs, homelessness and other urban ills. "Not all these
problems can be solved in court," the judge said.