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In New Focus on Quality of Life, City Goes After Petty Criminals

May 21, 2002
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In New Focus on Quality of Life, City Goes After Petty Criminals

by William K. Rashbaum, New York Times

New York City's prosecutors, police and probation officials said yesterday that they would begin cracking down on a core group of as many as 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 not only the police, but also prosecutors, the courts and probation officials to focus on petty criminals.

"From beginning to end," Mr. Bloomberg said, "from the police officer who 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 her release, everyone is going to be focusing on the career misdemeanor offenders."

Mr. Bloomberg announced his plan at City Hall with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly; three of the five district attorneys and senior aides to 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 a 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 economy."

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 of 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 to 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 of 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 proceeding."

And one veteran jurist in Criminal Court said solutions to the seemingly endless parade of repeat petty offenders lay elsewhere, with remedies to the root problems of drugs, homelessness and other urban ills. "Not all these problems can be solved in court," the judge said.

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