Can we banish our way to public safety?

By Kyle C. Barry

This month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to curb public lewdness, groping, and other unwanted touching on New York City’s public transit: a three-year ban on “repeat and high-risk sexual offenders” from the city’s subways, buses, and trains. “MTA riders deserve to feel safe, and we have an obligation to ensure they will not be targeted by sex offenders,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

It’s not the first time Cuomo has endorsed the idea. Last year, he described a sex offender subway ban as “common sense.”

Many see the proposal as more political grandstanding than a serious policy solution. For one, targeting repeat offenders doesn’t match the reality of the problem, wrote Guy Hamilton-Smith in The Appeal. “More than 95 percent of reported and cleared sex offenses in New York State are attributable to first-time offenders. Most people who are held accountable for sexual offenses do not reoffend. In data compiled by the NYPD, most of those arrested in 2016 and 2017 for subway sex offenses had no prior sex offense arrest record, never mind convictions.”

Others, including the Legal Aid Society, have argued that a sweeping ban would be not only ineffective but harmful and discriminatory. “Advocates worry a ban could unfairly impact already-marginalized people—including the homeless and the mentally ill, who sometimes seek refuge in the subways—and be used against defendants who are innocent of their accused crimes, but plead guilty to avoid jail time,” Jeanmarie Evelly wrote in City Limits. “They fear it could disproportionately impact people of color, as has been the case with the NYPD’s fare evasion enforcement.”

Indeed, a ban from public transit, in a city that so heavily depends on it, would further isolate people, eliminating access to employment, education, health services, and other pathways to rehabilitation and stability. “Cutting people off from resources, support, and community has the unsurprising effect of making it more likely that someone will commit another offense,” wrote Hamilton-Smith. “In New York City, where millions rely on mass transit, banishment would effectively cripple the ability of those exiting the criminal legal system to reintegrate.”

And these concerns don’t even include the potential consequences for violating such a ban, which, like the crackdown on fare evasion, could serve as yet another means of criminalizing the act of using public transportation.

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