Jumping a subway turnstile is a minor offense, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has finally resolved to treat it that way. Last week, Vance’s office announced that it would no longer prosecute most people charged with fare evasion in an effort to decriminalize low-level, nonviolent offenses across the borough. (Some turnstile jumpers would still be prosecuted for “public safety” reasons, according to the office.)
“We are continually evaluating our policies and practices in order to advance our mission of criminal justice reform alongside our primary mission of public safety,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo said in a statement to the New York Observer.
Jumping a turnstile is a common enough thing—I have done it, and if you live in New York City there’s a good chance you have too—but the enforcement of the rule plays out on familiar racial lines. In 2017, DNAinfo New York obtained data from the state revealing that a staggeringly disproportionate 89 percent of people arrested for turnstile-jumping arrests were black and Latinx New Yorkers.
So decriminalization is both common sense and a policy that resists racist enforcement and helps break up a pipeline that can trigger jail time and deportation for New Yorkers of color.
But New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has branded himself the leader of a resurgent progressive movement, is fighting this decision.
“People have to pay to get on the subways and fare evasion is not acceptable and we cannot create a situation where people think it’s acceptable,” the mayor told reporters on Tuesday. He then added that many people who jump turnstiles “have a lot of money on them.”
The mayor and the New York City Police Department have consistently denied that broken windows policing—the enforcement strategy of prosecuting these sorts of low-level offenses—feeds racist criminalization and undermines New York’s status as a sanctuary city for undocumented people. Immigrants, local advocates, journalists, and legal aid organizations have repeatedly exposed those claims as hollow rhetoric.
As Max Rivlin-Nadler reported at The Village Voice back in 2016:
So far in 2016, misdemeanor arrests accounted for two-thirds of all arrests in New York City, with 86.5 percent of those arrests targeting people of color. With over 3.7 million immigrants residing in the five boroughs, the numbers demonstrate that the NYPD’s reliance on broken windows policing has created a veritable dragnet for federal authorities to use at their will. President-elect Trump has already pledged to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants with criminal records, keeping intact Obama-era policies that prioritize deporting immigrants (even those here legally) who have been convicted of crimes.
“If the city keeps arresting people like this, then people are just going to keep going through the pipeline,” said Jessica Swensen, an immigration attorney at the Bronx Defenders. Many of her clients face removal after loitering, turnstile-jumping, and other low-level “quality of life” offenses. “If New York has decided itself to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but is OK with having that same offense mean you can be deported, there’s something wrong with that.”
The idea of “sanctuary” is bigger than a set of policies and political rhetoric, Mizue Aizeki, the deputy director of the New York-based Immigrant Defense Project, told me last year. It’s a “mindset we have to challenge, the question of who poses a threat. A political struggle of who’s deserving of rights.”
De Blasio continues to answer that question in full view of his constituents, whether he realizes it or not.