Thursday, November 20, 2008

Visiting Manhattan Night Court At 100 Center St. Part I

NYC The Blog finds that NYPD policy targets homeless people for fare evasion on the M35 bus as it runs from Wards Island Men Shelter to 125th St. Classist public policy, or effective crime prevention?

One man present at Night Court yesterday evening had been charged with fare beating on the m35 that morning, and did not want to give his name. He claimed that he and five others here in court were picked up that morning after boarding the bus at approximately 6:30am on their way to an outpatient facility in Harlem. They are homeless, living in the shelter, and the bus is their connection to job interviews, mental health facilities, friends and family. None of them had money for the fare, and snuck on the bus from the back door. When the bus approached 125th st, maybe at 123rd he said, it pulled over; police were waiting with vans. Multiple homeless residents were arrested for fare beating, and were now at Night Court facing charges. 

The building housing Night Court is located at 100 Center St and is open to the public. It is a stop that should be included in tourist guides; You need not pay to enter, nor have any purpose aside from wanting to be present. Curiosity and a last minute decision to join a friend were the only reasons that brought me there one evening last week. Upon entering, the guards manning the entrance were casual and friendly, scanning our belongings and waving our persons. When we asked them where court was being held, one helpfully suggested to try room 130 as "there's more going on there, it'll probably be more interesting than room 129."

The time was 8:30 pm when entering the building, a building that was relatively quiet, appearing less frenetic and busy as a result of the incredible heights of the ceilings, and the wide hallways which wrap around the interior in every direction. Night Court runs from 5:30pm to 1AM, with a dinner break from 9-10:15pm. Nearby on Baxter St one block away, behind the court house, are a a few great Vietnamese restaurants intermixed with a number of Bail Bondsman, whose neon signs beckon you with the promise, "ANY NYC BAIL, ANY NYC JAIL, GET OUT OF JAIL FAST!"

Night Court handles the same cases as Criminal Court, as it is the same thing, only later in the day. Fare beaters, murderers, drug charges, etc...Pete Tyrell, Associate Court Clerk for State of New York, noted that the large majority of cases are for theft of services -skipping out on your check at a diner, beating a taxi cab fare, jumping the turnstile- and minor drug offenses. This proved true during the time I was there, as a number of men were being arraigned on fare beating chargers, though the cases I witnessed were homeless men from Wards Island being charged with not paying their bus fare on the m35 (pdf), a bus which runs on a loop from the homeless shelter on Wards Island to 125th St in Harlem.

The court room itself was very calm and had an unexpected cordial and friendly atmosphere about it. Like a neighborhood barber shop or diner, except the only people present were employees of the court, police, guards, and those charged with a crime. There were more guards present, maybe 11 total, then there were people facing charges on the bench. Those charged and awaiting their case to be called looked haggard, tired, and dejected. Many needed the assistance of a translator. It was Spanish translation this evening, and the court clerk asserted that it was common in a day to make use of Arabic, Polish, Spanish, and sign language translators.

I spoke to one of the gentleman who was picked up for evading the fare on the M35. "There must have been an undercover on the bus," he said, sounding not entirely sure of himself, "because the police just boarded the bus and pulled us all off. They already knew which ones to grab. They came up to each of us and arrested us for not paying the fare. I've been here in court since this morning."

Admittedly, I was slightly suspicious, knowing full well the stories that get told when people charged with a crime are describing the events that led up to a police intervention. I didn't think he was lying, but def wondered if the police would really station undercovers on the bus to nab homeless people who haven't paid their fare, on a bus that only travels from a homeless shelter to 125th and back again. But I'm not alone in believing the police have more important things to worry about. Today's AM New York quotes City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Queens) -in response to a concern that there seems to be more graffiti around town- as claiming that "The officers we have are focused on serious crime..." and are not out chasing small matters. Though Peter is mistaken, and probably purposely so.

News reports confirm an NYPD policy of targeting homeless men on the M35 for fare evasion, with the NYTimes in 2005 reporting on the policy utilizing the use of undercovers on the bus "that began in the 1990's, when the New York Police Department took aim at minor crimes, like unlicensed street peddling and fare-beating."
"Homeless men and the lawyers who defend them say that the city created a Catch-22 when it designated the shelter as the place to sleep but then started arresting people who could not pay for the bus to get there..."You're setting me up," said Shavar Shaver, 21, of Brooklyn, who was arrested with five other people for not paying his fare in January. "They're the easiest victims, the homeless people. Its entrapment. Why don't you go fight some real crime?"
The man I spoke with at Night Court facing the same charge expressed similar sentiments, when he spoke to no one in particular and exasperatingly exclaimed, "I don't understand why people who don't have any money have to pay for this bus." According to a report on the Awareness Blog, the bus drivers agree, with many choosing to look the other way when men from the shelter board the bus.

The legal aid attorney was walking by, and I grabbed him for comment. He was cautious with his words, bound by ethical and legal standards that limit what he can say. Off the record and clearly frustrated with the cases he was seeing tonight, he exclaimed that "An enterprising journalist could have a field day with how we treat the poor in this city."

The men, living in a shelter and within reach of social workers and other city services, are using resources funded with tax dollars, social services created to feed and cloth and bed the men. Now they are targeted by the police who bring them into a different system, one of crime and punishment, again supported by a flow of tax dollars. Using a different set of taxes now, concurrently with the other monies, a decision to target and punish the men is made. New resources are used, by default turning ineffective the resources originally laid out for the men, in addition to yet more costs involved at the court house to handle the cases. Taxes being spent redundantly and even counter-productively, everywhere, for service, policing, jail, justice, and maybe the same circle all over again. Taxes that now can not be used to hire teacher, build a school, reduce rates of asthma, or clean a park.

Is this effort to nab fare beaters on the m35 bus a classist public policy, or effective crime suppression? The smart money is on both.

UPDATE: A number of recent news article covering this topic have since come to my attention, they are noted below.

  • On a Bus for the Homeless, a Push to Forgive the Fare <NY Times>
  • Should The Homeless Pay $2 Fare? <Awareness Blog>
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