There is no proof that the zero-tolerance policing adopted by New York and other cities in the 1990’s had anything to do with the decline in violent crime across the nation. Crime also dropped in jurisdictions that did not use the approach.
Millions of people have been arrested under the policy for minor violations, like possession of small amounts of marijuana. And one thing is beyond dispute: this arrest-first policy has filled the courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders who do not belong there and wreaked havoc with people’s lives. Even when cases are dismissed, people can be shadowed for years by error-ridden criminal records.
The human toll is evident in New York City, where last year 50,000 people — one every 10 minutes — were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The city downplays the significance, saying these cases are typically dismissed and the record sealed if the person stays out of trouble for a year. But getting tangled in the court system is harrowing. And the record-keeping can be unreliable and far more porous than the city suggests.
An analysis by the Legal Action Center, which assists 2,500 people with criminal records each year, has found that nearly half of its clients’ rap sheets have errors. Defense lawyers say that too often the courts and police fail to report to the state about dismissals and other outcomes favorable to defendants.
As for “sealed” records, background-screening companies working for private employers can harvest data at the time of an arrest and there is no guarantee that they will update to reflect dismissals — or expunge the information when records are sealed by the courts. While it is illegal to exclude people from jobs based solely on arrest or convictions, unless there is a compelling business reason for doing so, many employers quickly write off applicants who are flagged in these databases…
…The fact that 87 percent of those arrested are black or Hispanic suggests that the police are deliberately singling out minority citizens for arrests that push some of them permanently to the very margins of society.
An arrest, even without a conviction, can swiftly unleash disastrous personal consequences. Consider the 2011 case of a 26-year-old single mother from Brooklyn whose lawyers say she was arrested after the police forced her to reveal a small packet of marijuana hidden in her purse. The judge said the charges would be dismissed if she stayed out of trouble for a year. A week later, the woman had been fired from her job as a janitor with the New York City Housing Authority. She has not been rehired…
Employers and government agencies also have a responsibility here. They must not rush to their own judgment about minor offenders.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg needs to recognize that zero-tolerance policing is not the panacea his Police Department seems to think it is. The police need to spend more time tracking down serious crime and less on minor offenses. There is nothing minor about a record that can follow people for the rest of their lives.
What NYC coppers say they believe in – for the benefit of the media and budget considerations – rarely has anything to do with reality. Making noises like a tough cop, stacking up arrests regardless of cause or conviction looks great when standing before a council budget evaluation.
More of the same old corrupt practices fit tightly into the actions of people who are supposedly part of the fight against corruption.