When it’s a crime to be poor

January 27, 2011

Hannah Wolfe describes a recent visit to the New York City Criminal Court--and how the poor are singled out for punishment over the smallest offenses.

IT WAS a cold and snowy Friday morning in January. My son and I got on the subway. He got off at the 96th Street stop and headed to school. I gave him a hug and assured him that I would not be arrested and would, indeed, pick him up in time for his karate lesson.

I continued downtown on my way to New York City Criminal Court. I had received a summons for "unlawful posting of a poster" a few months before, and today was my appointed date to appear in court.

Arriving at the designated downtown office building, a sooty Victorian affair, I found the entry to be barricaded; a small handwritten sign directed "Summons" to the entrance around the corner. The sidewalk was laced with ice; several other hapless fellow "summonees" peered at the sign, tried to get their bearings, then trotted, limped or shuffled off in the direction indicated.

The older woman ahead of me struggled over the ice with her cane. After 10 minutes in line at the metal detector, we were directed upstairs to wait in a bank teller-like line for a clerk at one of a series of numbered windows. The civilian clerks were reasonably friendly and respectful, making an effort to answer anxious questions.

NYPD cops hassle a man on a corner in the Bronx
NYPD cops hassle a man on a corner in the Bronx

There, we exchanged our "summons" (the 3 x 6 smudged pink carbon copy of the police officer's original scribbled charges) for a numbered "ticket," and were directed to a courtroom.

"Courtroom 2" was outfitted with rows of wooden benches circa 1940, sufficient to seat 60 comfortably. When I entered the room and fit myself onto a bench, that's about how many people, mainly young and brown, were in the room. Over the course of the next hour, about 30 more trickled in; the guards barked periodic commands to "move over and make room," "turn off your cell phone" and "take off your hats."

The only decorations in the room: a droopy, graying flag, and large gold letters on the wall above, saying: "In God We Trust."

Upon entering the room and scanning the faces, tense and anxious without exception, I quickly made eye contact with someone who resembled my local fruit vendor. I mimed and mouthed, "Fruit, right?" and he smiled, mouthed "bananas" exaggeratedly (the fruit I most frequently purchase from him) and raised his eyebrows in assent.

His cart is stationed one block from the site of my alleged crime, "posting a sign on a light bulb" (sic--this is what the judge was able to glean from the summons; he even chuckled a bit upon reading it out loud, which I thought was not really in very good taste). Apparently the cops (my son now calls them "the fuzz," for reasons I'm not clear on) in our precinct had been given a high ticketing quota for the month, I thought.

Now squeezed tightly into the benches in our thick winter garb, I initially tried to lighten things up a bit by gently nudging my neighbors to make a bad joke about the judge or commiserate about the cramped conditions, but was met with not unfriendly but stony stares signaling that this was really not the thing to do. I got the message. So I started taking notes to occupy myself.

COURT WAS called to order, and the "summonees" names were yelled out, each with an accompanying offense. The time required to process each case was approximately 90 seconds. As the court-appointed lawyer standing by our side explained to each, the "convenient" thing to do was to plead guilty and pay one's fine immediately. The alternative, pleading innocent, meant going to trial (this was presented clearly as a threat).

"Summonees" with foreign-sounding names (Hispanic, Arabic, Chinese) were summarily asked, "You speak English?" (this, like everything else, yelled across the room, in English only, of course.) Approximately one-third of summonees shook their heads and were told to return to their seats until an interpreter appeared.

In the half hour before I was called up, I tallied offenses as follows, with fines ranging from $25 to $100: open container of alcohol (young Black man explained he was drinking a beer on his stoop); trespassing (young Black man explained he was visiting a friend in a neighboring housing project); standing within 10 feet of a crosswalk and thus obstructing it (really); bike on sidewalk; open container; open container; sale of beer to a minor; turning right on red (young Latino man explained he was from California and did not know this was illegal here); bike on sidewalk (young Latino man who was clearly developmentally disabled/retarded); vendor blocking pedestrian traffic; blocking driveway with pedicab; another bike on sidewalk; urination in public; urination in public; doing performance art in Union Square; jaywalking; urination in public.

One older Black man had three separate counts of public urination--$50 each.

When the fruit vendor was called before the judge, he was one of the brave few to offer a spirited rejoinder. From what I gathered by the brief but heated interchange, the charges of "oversized cart" referred to the eight-inch-wide shelf projecting from one side of his cart which accommodates his pyramid of bananas (25 cents each, five for a dollar). "$100 you charge me, for my bananas? Bananas?"

My turn came. The lawyer gave me the usual guidance: "It's best to plead guilty and get it over with." I said, "Well, I'd like to pay the fine and get it over with, but I'd like to plead innocent, as they did not see me putting up a flyer." The judge apparently overheard this.

"Bang" went a stamp on paper or a gavel or some final-sounding court sound. "If you're innocent, you have to go to trial. Go wait outside." The lawyer feebly protested, "But, wait, she was just telling that to me..." But that was that.

IN THE relatively chummy atmosphere of the hall, as the "guilty" waited to be marched single-file prison-style to the cashier, a few people approached me and said, "You always have to plead guilty. Otherwise, they send you to trial, and then they charge you a lot more, even though it's the same crime. It doesn't matter whether you did it or not, you just say you did it. That's how it works."

Once we were out in the hall, the tense, silence broken, people began to commiserate and solidarize. A guard managed to yell out "public urination" (as if that were his name) at the older man several more times, as he leaned uncomfortably on the wall in a bedraggled coat, mumbling to himself.

About 30 of us were waiting in the hall "for papers." There were no chairs, and we were told it was not acceptable to sit on the floor. A few fellow "criminals" said in the direction of the older man, "When you gotta go, you gotta go," and "Well, where are we supposed to pee?"

When I went over to talk to him, he told me he was a diabetic and incontinent. "Sometimes I just can't hold it, and I go all down my leg, but it's so cold now, I didn't want my clothes all wet. They told me if I get a letter from my doctor, they'll just give me one count. I'm gonna try to go there now."

Humiliation. Dehumanization. Criminalization of small attempts to make a bit of money, have fun, pee. Maybe this court has always been so packed, but, of course, I could not help but wonder about the nickel-and-diming generation of revenue by the city on the backs of the working and nonworking poor.

But the waste of time, money and resources is staggering. In one hour, at a rate of one case per 90 seconds and an average fine of $50, I calculate they raked in $2,000. This can hardly begin to cover the costs of the judge, two lawyers, four police officers, two clerks and a stenographer who staffed the room.

The fines are small, but by the looks of those in the room, they would represent a significant dent in what they have each week to pay for the basics. So what's the point? This is not a revenue-generating enterprise.

I think the police get "points" for writing so many tickets per month. So that's what's in it for them. But it's hard to see any purpose other than criminalizing everyday life for the poor. As Michael Franti's song goes, "It's a crime to be broke in America."

Everyone pled guilty. Like the guy told me, it doesn't really matter whether you did it or not. If you tell them you didn't, you just have to pay more. I think this is what is meant by "Kafkaesque."

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