Welcome to the ugly underside of the zero-tolerance era, where insignificant rule violations get inflated into criminal infractions. Here’s how it worked with me: a gaggle of transit cops stopped me after they saw me walk between two subway cars on my way to work. This, they told me, was against the rules. They asked for ID and typed my name into a hand-held computer. Up came that old citation that I didn’t know about and they couldn’t tell me about. I was immediately handcuffed and brought to the precinct. There, I waited in a holding cell, then was fingerprinted (post-CSI memo: they now take the fingers, the thumbs, the palms, and the sides of both hands) and had the contents of my shoulder bag inventoried. I could hardly believe it: I was being arrested without ever having committed a crime.
I was held overnight in the Midtown North Precinct lock-up (shoelaces and belt confiscated, meals courtesy of the McDonald’s dollar menu). In the morning, my fellow convicts and I were led, chain-gang style, to the Manhattan Community Court next door. The judge there dismissed the charge against me – because no one ever does time for that kind of crime. A few days later, at Brooklyn’s central court, my warrant was lifted for "time served" – again because no one is ever locked up for breaking the leash law.
If the cops had simply written me a ticket, I would have paid it, and I would have also had to pay to vacate my outstanding warrant. But by cuffing me and holding me overnight, the city spent quite a bit of money (it took two police officers approximately six hours each just to arrest and process me), while the fines assessed against me were rescinded.
While I was inside, I was astounded by the kinds of things that take up police and court time. A couple of people nabbed for being in various parks after dark. One of them was walking his dog. Two young men accused of riding their bicycles on the sidewalk. Three people arrested for sleeping in a subway station. My roommate in the lock-up was an articulate and self-aware 60-year-old whose sin was that he bought a bottle of booze and had taken a swig on the street. In the cell next to us: two costumed Mariachis busted for busking on the subway. They were repeat offenders. Their weapons: a guitar and an accordion.
With zero tolerance, we have finally done it: We have criminalized everyday life. After all, in the course of their life people sometimes ride their bikes on the sidewalks. And once upon a time not too long ago, it was normal to go into the parks after dark. My friends and I did all the time, particularly if we had time to kill before or after the opera, the symphony, or a jazz or rock concert. We walked brazenly between subway cars. Some of us even – horror of horrors! – played music on the street or in the subway without a license. And, though my parents would not be happy to know it even now, we sometimes drank beer in public – making sure, in an important but legally meaningless gesture, that the bottle was in a paper bag. If I did any of this on a regular basis today, I’d probably be considered a behavioral recidivist and sent to Riker’s Island.
I can laugh away my time in a cell—my life suddenly turned into an update of “Alice’s Restaurant.” But I get angry when I think of kids in their teens or 20s being treated the way I was. I’m not against hard time for criminal, violent or anti-social behavior. But slapping young people behind bars and giving them an arrest record simply because the normal things they do are trivial rule violations is not only wasteful, it’s downright criminal.
Robert Neuwirth, a longtime contributor to City Limits, is the author of "Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World," and is at work on a new book about the global reach of the informal economy.
Editor's note: The Giuliani administration highlighted its increase of “quality of life” summonses, but statistics from the annual Mayor’s Management Report indicate that the Bloomberg administration has been just as zealous. The number of such summonses under Giuliani reached its height in fiscal 2001, hitting 523,000. After a dip in 2002, the number of "quality of life" summonses rose under Mayor Bloomberg to more than 700,000 in fiscal 2004. They’ve declined since then to 527,000 in fiscal 2008—still higher than under the previous mayor. The city’s courts, meanwhile, have registered an uptick in the number of people getting arraigned on minor charges: In 2007, the last year for which the court system published statistics, the number of arraignments for infractions and violations was the highest in 10 years – 20 percent greater than the previous year.