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Legal Process as Racialized Punishment: The Material Consequences of Discretionary Arrests in New York City

Abstract

Order maintenance policing—a systematic focus on the aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses, influenced by the “broken windows” perspective—often exposes structurally disadvantaged communities to disparate police contact, ranging from surveillance and stops to low-level arrest and various forms of misconduct. In keeping with recent criminological research that considers the collateral consequences of low-level arrests, our descriptive and exploratory study examines qualitative and quantitative arrest data for discretionary non-criminal and misdemeanor offenses in New York City. Mixed-method surveys conducted outside criminal courthouses, together with in-depth interviews and focus groups, highlight the immediate, subsequent, and cumulative costs stemming from discretionary arrests, including the routine loss of time and money, myriad forms of abuse, and loss of educational, employment and housing opportunities—systemic, collateral violence that, given the social groups disproportionately targeted, constitutes racialized punishment. The findings also present research participants’ suggestions for and situated visions of police reform and accountability, offering expertise shaped by lived experiences of discretionary policing.

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Notes

  1. Most people arrested for these offenses are held for a relatively short time, but some are transferred to longer-term facilities; city data from the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) (2019) show that in the second half of 2018, on average, nine people per day were incarcerated at the notorious Rikers Island jail complex while awaiting trial for non-criminal violations. At the same time, 1087 people were held for various misdemeanors on any given day, including 120 for drug possession and 104 for vehicular charges, such as driving with a suspended license.

  2. Whereas violations are non-criminal offenses punishable by a maximum jail sentence of fifteen days, misdemeanors are categorized under the law as crimes; they generate a criminal record that may appear on a background check, if convicted, and carry higher penalties including up to one year of imprisonment. Municipal legislation in 2016 reduced charges related to certain city park rules (e.g., being in a park after hours) from misdemeanors to violations (Durkin 2016).

  3. Findings for the second research question are addressed in Jashnani, Bustamante, and Stoudt (2017), while the last one is examined at length in Bustamante, Jashnani, and Stoudt (2019). Overall results regarding the multi-faceted impacts of low-level arrests also provided the basis for an infographic distilling our findings: http://publicscienceproject.org/web-final-costs-interactive-2/.

  4. The study was conducted through the Public Science Project—a research institute of the City University of New York (CUNY) committed to democratizing knowledge production through collaboration with communities to examine structural injustice—in association with Communities United for Police Reform (CPR)—a coalition of community-based organizations working on issues of police accountability and reform in New York City. This coalition supported the authors in understanding the need for research regarding lived experiences of OMP (particularly discretionary arrests), designing interview protocols, and recruiting participants for preliminary questionnaires and in-depth interviews.

  5. For more information on participant demographics, survey categories and items, and arrest details, see Jashnani, Bustamante, and Stoudt (2017).

  6. See note 5.

  7. See note 5.

  8. Such classes, sometimes mandated by the court for teenagers and lasting approximately three hours, utilize creative exercises to highlight the role of choice in improving future outcomes.

  9. This policy, known as the “Aid Elimination Penalty,” which came into effect following 1998 federal legislation, was repealed by Congress in late 2020 and ceased to be a barrier to student financial aid as of 2021 (Jaeger 2020).

  10. Important to note is that these interviews preceded the lengthy nationwide uprising following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 and the subsequent circulation of calls for defunding police, which in the aftermath have become more widespread. For an example of a widely circulated abolitionist critique that centered divestment from law enforcement, see 8 to Abolition (2020); for an “explainer” that presented such critiques to practitioners and policy makers, see Vera Institute of Justice (2020).

  11. Many of the charges were also misrepresented, decontextualized, or out-and-out fabricated (e.g., being arrested for trespassing on your own roof, possessing marijuana that was on the ground or in someone else’s pocket, trespassing by waiting for a friend on the train station stairs, or even because an officer “didn’t see you swipe” at the subway turnstile) according to research participants. Moreover, because of the spatial concentration of policing in low-income Black and Latinx neighborhoods in New York City, police simply are not present for many instances in which White residents commit similar offenses; this is separate from and in addition to actively ignoring offenses or offering such individuals a verbal admonition in place of a summons or arrest, to which both Black and White study participants attested.

  12. See Harcourt (1998: 298) for a version of this argument that lacks a central racial analysis (i.e., the production of “the disorderly” through the techniques of OMP).

  13. For an extreme example, see Felson (2006), where the author—explicitly drawing on the life sciences—uses terms such as “adaptation,” “growth,” “metabolism,” “reproduction,” and “selection” to construct a criminological framework.

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Acknowledgments

We are tremendously grateful to the Tides Foundation, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and Public Science Project, as well as the Gittell Urban Studies Collective and Advanced Research Collaborative of the City University of New York (CUNY), for their generous support. A special thank you to Selma Djokovic for her assistance with this project.

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Correspondence to Gaurav Jashnani.

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Jashnani, G., Bustamante, P. & Stoudt, B.G. Legal Process as Racialized Punishment: The Material Consequences of Discretionary Arrests in New York City. Crit Crim 29, 873–895 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-021-09595-9

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