Turnstile justice? Manhattan eases up on fare jumpers

In this March 3, 2016 photo, New York City police officers observe commuters using turnstiles at a Harlem subway station in New York. New York City police and transit officials say a new policy not to prosecute subway fare jumpers could embolden criminals and cause chaos. But Manhattan prosecutors say their policy that took effect this month makes sense because two-thirds of those arrested in for the crime in the borough had no prior convictions. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

NEW YORK (AP) — Fare beaters who hopped over grimy subway turnstiles back in the early 1990s were the first targets of a policing strategy that went after the smallest offenses and was credited with helping to drive crime down to record lows.

So now, a new policy to halt the prosecution of turnstile jumpers in Manhattan has some city officials and riders questioning it as a foolhardy turning back of the clock.

“The New York transit system is facing major problems already,” said Dottie Jeffries, 67, a daily subway rider who was just getting off the train in Greenwich Village. “And not caring about whether someone pays … sets a tone of permissiveness that could cause more trouble.”

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota wrote in a letter to the Manhattan District Attorney this week that “allowing ever more widespread fare-beating … unquestionably sends a loud and clear signal to those who would flout the law.”

Going after fare beaters was a pillar of the “Broken Windows” theory implemented in the early 1990s. It argued that ignoring smaller quality-of-life crimes only cleared the way for bigger ones to happen. Critics said the strategy became a pretense to unfairly target poor minorities.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said his policy, which took effect Feb. 1, doesn’t prevent officers from stopping turnstile jumpers, and that those found to have weapons or an open warrant will be arrested and prosecuted. But a review by his office found that two-thirds of all those arrested in Manhattan for the crime had no prior convictions, and a judge posed no criminal sanctions on those who pleaded guilty, Vance said.

Most turnstile jumpers aren’t arrested anyway. The penalty is a civil citation, similar to a traffic ticket, the accused can either pay a $100 fine or fight the case in the Transit Adjudication Bureau. Last year, of 33,000 turnstile jumpers in Manhattan, 25,000 got summonses and 8,000 were arrested.

Police will still be able to write those tickets in Manhattan. It’s just that violators won’t be taken to jail.

“The criminal justice system should be reserved for people who endanger public safety,” Vance wrote.

The policy applies only in Manhattan, because the city’s other four boroughs have different district attorneys.

Subway rider Rhona Harrison, 36, said it was a waste of money to prosecute such low-level cases.

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