The New York Times praises New York City prosecutors in an editorial for their action this week dismissing 644,000 outstanding arrest warrants stemming from minor offenses at least 10 years old, more than a third of the city’s 1.6 million outstanding summons warrants. The newspaper noted that the city already had scaled back its practice of stopping and frisking people in high-crime neighborhoods. It has reduced the number of people prosecuted on minor marijuana charges. The warrant backlog stems from what the Times calls “the now-discredited belief that petty offenses, like riding a bike on the sidewalk or drinking in public, could lead to more serious crimes.” Minority neighborhoods were blanketed with criminal summonses that forced hundreds of thousands of people to live with a constant threat of jail time for minor infractions.
Now, the city has encouraged officers to shift many common petty offenses into civil court, where people can avoid criminal records and can sometimes make amends through community service. In 2009, at the height of zero-tolerance policing, the city handed out more than 500,000 summonses, compared with about 268,000 last year. People who forget court dates for offenses like littering are subject to arrest warrants that can land them in jail for days the next time they encounter a police officer in, say, a routine traffic stop. Warrants can also make it difficult to find jobs or get apartments. Immigrants can be denied citizenship applications or be deported. The new “mass expungement” is an indictment of the summons system itself, the Times says. It urges the city’s prosecutors to to expunge the records of others “who may have been unjustifiably caught in the zero-tolerance dragnet.”