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Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., requesting the vacation of 242,000 outdated and largely irrelevant arrest warrants. Image courtesy of Victor J. Blue, The New York Times.

On Wednesday, district attorneys representing four of New York City’s five boroughs announced their joint decision to vacate over a half-million arrest warrants.

The action serves as a way to free up courts from pursuing outdated and lost-cause cases.

According to The New York Times, city officials began to aggressively ticket minor offenses starting in the 1990s. Individuals were issued citations for infractions like drinking in public or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.

The concerted effort by law enforcement was part of a ‘broken windows’ campaign designed to clear up crime by creating a sense of city-wide order.

New York – like many of America’s other metropoles – suffered from inflated homicide rates and increased gang activity following the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s. As local police departments struggled to keep even the streets of Manhattan safe, impoverished quarters of each borough fell into disrepair.

‘Broken windows’ was a criminology theory that suggested crime rates rose when areas suffered from dilapidation – in other words, the appearance of lawlessness fed into lawless behavior.

While the strategy has attracted its share of critics, the effort did pay out – New York went from being among the most troubled localities in the country to its most peaceful big city in less than two decades.

In an attempt to push that bygone era well into the past, the district attorneys of Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens collectively moved to dismiss some 644,000 arrest warrants. The Times explains the rationale as the latest ‘in a string of actions to reduce the number of people passing through the criminal courts and city jails on charges that would otherwise merit little more than a fine or community service.’

All of the tossed summonses were at least ten years old.

In The Bronx alone, 160,000 were dismissed by District Attorney Darcel Clark.

“The people who have these warrants have not been in trouble with the law for a decade or more, and it is time they are given the opportunity to live productive lives, free from summonses hanging over their heads,” said Clark in a statement.

In Brooklyn, CBS News reported that applause broke out in a courtroom when 143,532 warrants were finally laid to rest.

“Someone who owes a $25 fine should not be arrested and brought down to central booking and spend 20 or 24 hours in a cell next to a hardened criminal. That’s not fair, and that’s not justice,” said Brooklyn’s acting district attorney, Eric Gonzalez.

The district attorneys’ decision was well-received by the mayor.

Even New York prosecutors supported the mass dismissals, saying they were sick of seeing law-abiding residents get arrested over outdated warrants after dialing emergency services to deal with a fender-bender or report a crime.

But not everyone in the nation’s largest city was cheering the act of judicial charity – notably absent from the effort was Michael McMahon, the district attorney of New York’s least populous (and most frequently forgotten) borough, Staten Island.

“I believe that issuing blanket amnesty for these offenses is unfair to those citizens who responsibly appear in court and sends the wrong message about the importance of respecting our community and our laws,” McMahon wrote in a statement.

Trying to bridge the gap between Staten Island and the rest of the city across the Hudson, McMahon noted that he’s supported efforts which allow the offenders of yesteryear to clear their names by appearing in court.

Sources

644,000 Old Warrants Scrapped for Crimes Like Public Drinking

NYC Courts Dismiss Over 640,000 Warrants For Unpaid Summonses

NYC courts toss more than 640K warrants for unpaid summonses

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