Testing Zero Tolerance

On February 1, New Yorkers woke up to discover that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. decided to turn the borough into a testing ground to see if the policy of Zero Tolerance really does keep crime down.

From now on, subway turnstile jumpers in Manhattan will find a more tolerant attitude on the part of the police. They will no longer necessarily risk arrest and prosecution. Only those farebeaters found carrying weapons or who have an open warrant will be detained. Instead, they’ll get a $100 fine.

The news was disconcerting to many New Yorkers, especially those who recall what it was like to live in New York City from the 1960s to the 1990s, before Zero Tolerance was put into practice. Their memories recall periods when it seemed that it was the violent criminals, the muggers and turnstile jumpers who ruled the streets. It was a time when it was not only unsafe to ride the subways late at night, but New Yorkers feared for their lives during the daytime as well.

Many of those who survived that period have a hard time understanding why the Manhattan district attorney would want to take a chance on dismantling the policy that is widely credited with making the city relatively safe.

Mr. Vance asserts that a review conducted by his office found that two-thirds of all those arrested in Manhattan for entering the subways without paying had no prior convictions, and judges did not punish those who pleaded guilty. And he does have a valid point when he says: “The criminal justice system should be reserved for people who endanger public safety.”

Supporters of the new approach stress that Zero Tolerance has not been replaced with 100 Percent Tolerance. Police will still be able to write tickets for offenders in Manhattan. Except they won’t be taken to jail; young people will no longer be sent to Riker’s Island for minor infractions.

Yet that was precisely what Zero Tolerance was supposed to accomplish. The idea was originally suggested by sociologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, who argued that an atmosphere of lawlessness, even of a minor type, encourages more serious criminal behavior. As they wrote, in what became one of the most famous and influential metaphors of the period: “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares.”

Thus, it followed that if “broken windows” are repaired and the guys who broke them are punished, the pattern of lawlessness will be brought under control. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner William Bratton put the theory to work, making farebeaters and graffiti artists the first targets.

In the decades that have passed, there has been much debate about precisely how effective Zero Tolerance really is and whether it indeed played the crucial role in dramatically bringing down crime in NYC.

There is no doubt that the rampant crime which was the scourge of fare-paying citizens up until the 1990s diminished to the point where, in 2017, it reached an all-time low. The city’s subways are now so safe that a rider has just a one-in-a-million chance of being a crime victim, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.

Critics of Zero Tolerance have for years been decrying the harsh treatment of young offenders and cite studies claiming that this policy does not really account for the turnaround in public safety.

Various studies have yielded mixed results. A sociological question involving millions of people in a huge city over decades is exceedingly difficult to analyze, and there has been no conclusive proof of whether Zero Tolerance works or not. The most they have done is cast some doubt as to whether it has been the only factor. But for New Yorkers who can travel the subways and walk the streets without constant fear for their safety, the results have been conclusive enough.

As MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota wrote in a letter to Mr. Vance this week, “allowing ever more widespread fare-beating … unquestionably sends a loud and clear signal to those who would flout the law.”

Police Commissioner James O’Neill pointed out a certain “gap” between theory and practice in the new regime of tolerance. His officers noted that in at least five cases this week, prosecutors declined to prosecute turnstile jumpers who had long criminal records, including one with 52 prior arrests for various crimes.

The district attorney has now recruited Manhattanites as participants in a controlled experiment to determine what the sociological studies could not — that is, whether or how much Zero Tolerance brings down crime. For, while the rest of the city continues on the old policy, Manhattan will test out the new one.

It’s not an experiment that New Yorkers asked for, and not one they should be subjected to. One can only hope and pray that Mr. Vance’s gamble will not cause harm to the people of New York.