The story behind 59,705: what the new summons data means for New York City


The Knowledge Project – a regularly updated site that tracks more than 50 key crime and enforcement indicators online – has launched a blog. As data comes in from all corners of New York City’s criminal justice system, this blog will share interesting findings and discuss the implications for public safety in our City. Check back soon, and tell us your ideas for future posts here. For our first blog post, we partnered with the NYPD to take a deep dive into summons data from the first quarter of 2016.


Half of all contact New Yorkers have with criminal courts happens via the summons process. About a year ago, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice noticed two things about this process:

  • A lot of people simply were not showing up to court after receiving a summons.
  • New Yorkers did not have consistent information about where, why and to whom summonses were being issued across the City.

And over the last year, MOCJ has worked closely with the Office of Court Administration and the NYPD to fix both problems. To reduce the number of people who fail to appear in summons court – nearly 40 percent in 2014 –  we and our partners improved the actual process: a redesigned summons form that makes it easy to understand where and when to appear in court, text message reminders that are being tested out for the first time to improve court appearance, and extended court hours that make it easier to appear. You can learn more about all of these changes, which rolled out at the beginning of April, here. Check back in the coming months to see how these summons reforms affected second quarter data for 2016. 

But this post is about the second issue – giving New Yorkers access to information about how summonses are being enforced in our City. Every quarter, the NYPD now posts data on summons enforcement. The data from the first quarter of 2016 is a trove of information – 19,252 rows in a spreadsheet, to be exact. To help navigate the data, we thought it might be helpful to highlight a few of the major trends.

If you only have 30 seconds, here is what you need to know about summons: 

  • Over the past several years, the number of criminal summonses issued in New York City has dropped dramatically – by 45 percent since 2009.
  • In the first quarter of 2016, the number of summonses issued was slightly higher than in the first quarter of 2015, but remains much lower than levels in other years over the past decade.
  • Four categories had jumps in summons volume this quarter over the same time period last year, including public consumption of alcohol and possession of marijuana.
  • A deep dive into marijuana enforcement trends shows that with more summonses have come fewer marijuana-related arrests.

First Quarter Totals

While criminal summonses were slightly up in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year, overall criminal summons enforcement remains at significantly lower levels than in the past decade. 2015 was the lowest year-end number of criminal summonses issued since 1997. Since 2009, the number of criminal summonses issued annually has dropped by more than 200,000. 

New York City continues to keep criminal summonses at record lows, but the slight change between 2016 and 2015 merits a closer look. To see what has changed since 2015, we turned to summons numbers for each offense category. 


Trending Upwards: Alcohol and Marijuana Summonses

In the first quarter of 2016, summons levels in four categories rose. The number of criminal summonses issued for public consumption of alcohol – the offense that has most frequently led to a criminal summons – is up by 21 percent from the first quarter of 2015. But marijuana possession saw a more significant percentage increase, as criminal summonses issued in the first quarter of 2016 are up from the first quarter of 2015 by 45 percent.

Marijuana Enforcement: More Summonses, Fewer Arrests

To get a sense of what is driving the higher marijuana summons numbers when so many other violations are remaining relatively steady, we compared the data to arrest numbers. More summonses have coincided with fewer arrests – from the first quarter of 2014 to 2016, summonses are up 52 percent but arrests are down 43 percent. 

The Police Department’s change in marijuana enforcement policy in late 2014 – directing officers to issue a summons rather than make an arrest for small amounts of marijuana possessed in public, except in cases where the individual does not have an ID or has an open warrant –  seems to be leading to enduring reductions in marijuana arrests.


Top Ten: Stay Tuned for Changes to Come

In 2016, the same ten offenses were issued the most criminal summonses as in the first quarter of 2015, and consumption of alcohol remains well above the rest. 

But several of these top ten offenses may see dramatic reductions in criminal summons levels in months to come. The Criminal Justice Reform Act — signed by Mayor de Blasio last week — aims to reduce criminal penalties and create options for officers to issue civil summonses instead of criminal summonses for many low-level offenses, including three of the top ten (consumption of alcohol, urinating in public, and failure to comply with sign). Receiving a civil summons, in appropriate cases, will mean no chance of a criminal conviction (which could affect housing eligibility), no chance of an arrest or jail time, and – if found in violation – the option to complete community service instead of paying a fine.  Learn more here

The experience with marijuana enforcement suggests that with more enforcement options for officers, New York City can more effectively find the right law enforcement response for the right offense. As the Criminal Justice Reform Act is implemented over the next year, check back here to see how additional expansions to low-level enforcement options for officers will change the data on summons enforcement in New York City.