NEW YORK – New York City will reduce the penalties for minor offenses like littering and public urination under a package of bills approved by the City Council on Wednesday.
Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which is expected to be signed into law by Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, offenses including possessing an open container of alcohol will in most cases be steered to civil, rather than criminal, court.
Supporters of the bills said harsh penalties for carrying an open can of beer and other low-level, nonviolent offenses have a disproportionate effect on black and Latino New Yorkers.
"We need to put the justice back in our justice system and I think that's what we're doing," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat.
Council member Jumaane Williams, also a Democrat, said, "The unequal enforcement of law and practices that happen in communities of more color has had lasting intergenerational effects on families and neighborhoods, systematically destroying the futures of so many."
Backers say the changes will divert more than 100,000 cases from the criminal court system every year, avoid the issuance of 50,000 warrants annually and prevent nearly 10,000 people annually from having permanent criminal records. There are currently 1.5 million open warrants in the city, which has about 8.5 million residents.
"If you're in the park after hours you should get a civil violation," said Council member Daniel Garodnick, a Democrat. "If you have an open container you should get a civil violation. We will free up law enforcement and the criminal justice system."
But opponents called the legislation a step in the wrong direction.
"I believe the proposed changes are unnecessary and send the wrong message," said Council member Steven Matteo, a Republican. "Just because these are not serious crimes does not mean they should not be taken seriously."