The leaders of the New York State Legislature have promised to undo a behind-the-scenes budgetary deal that has put New York City's quality of life in peril. Last year legislators, at the request of the state's judiciary, relieved the city's criminal courts of the responsibility for processing minor offenders—those who violate ordinances against public-order crimes like urinating or drinking in public. (See "How to Run a Police Department," City Journal, Autumn 1995.) The judges claimed the change in jurisdiction would save $1 million, though they never made it clear how. In truth, the overburdened judges were trying to reduce their workload. But they failed to understand how important these minor crimes are in the Police Department's successful strategy to prevent serious crime.
That strategy is based on a simple but powerful idea: tolerating uncivil behavior in public spaces creates a sense of disorder and an environment that breeds more serious crime. By removing jurisdiction for minor offenses from the criminal courts, the Legislature in effect decriminalized them. Police can no longer arrest repeat offenders; nor do they have the authority to question and demand identification from those who commit minor offenses.
The Police Department is now reviewing the city's disorder statutes to determine which are most crucial to return to criminal court jurisdiction. Among their recommendations are certain to be the laws banning public drinking, public urination, and possession and sale of certain types of knives. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno have promised to follow the NYPD's recommendations: New Yorkers should hold them to that commitment.