New York’s most desperate caught up in ‘crimes of poverty’
In May, Robert Ibarra was down to zero.
Usually careful with the government stipend and food stamps he lives on, an unexpected expense left the 54-year-old with nothing before his next check. His MetroCard was empty, too.
A bus driver on Staten Island let Ibarra ride for free to get from his supportive housing in Bulls Head to the ferry so he could find some food at the Bowery Mission shelter, he recalled.
It had been nearly 24 hours since he had last eaten.
With the bus blocks away from the St. George Terminal after 6 p.m., Ibarra realized he’d missed his last chance for a meal that day. So he decided to steal a sandwich from the nearby Western Beef supermarket.
“What happened was, I was out of money and I didn’t have anything to eat,” Ibarra told THE CITY. “I was hungry. There was nowhere else I could go.”
‘Ignoring the underlying causes’
His arrest on petit larceny charges marked one of about 20,000 made annually in New York City.
“These are crimes of poverty that should be met with compassion and social services, not the punitive weight of the district attorney’s office,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Prosecutors unfortunately ignore the underlying causes.”
Ibarra has no family to turn to. He said he was taken away from his mother at age 15 in neglect proceedings and placed in foster care.
He lived for a time under the Brooklyn Bridge, he said. He went to prison for an assault in 1997 before he being diagnosed with schizophrenia and medically treated, according to his lawyer.
Ibarra didn’t have much of a plan when he walked into Western Beef that Friday night. He tossed a beef bologna-and-cheese sandwich, a Tropicana juice and two meal-supplement smoothies into a plastic bag.
After being caught by an employee while trying to walk out, Ibarra was taken by cops to the 120th Precinct station house. Officers gave him three bagels while he waited for arraignment.
It was his first meal all day.
Staten Island prosecutors initially offered Ibarra six months in jail for a guilty plea, saying if he refused they would ask for $5,000 bail. The judge gave him a conditional discharge, meaning Ibarra could remain free as long as he didn’t get in any more trouble — and he had to stay out of Western Beef.
Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon took to Twitter to defend his office’s approach to Ibarra’s case, citing his past criminal history and missed court dates.
— Michael E. McMahon (@StatenIslandDA) May 6, 2019
Different borough, different results
When it comes to petty crimes, prosecutorial discretion can make all the difference.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, for example, often simply drops petit larceny cases outright, a spokesperson said.
“In cases that involve very small amounts or have other extenuating circumstances, we’ll decline to prosecute,” spokesperson Oren Yaniv wrote in an email.
People arrested on petit larceny charges often receive a ticket, which now gets the case referred to a program called Project Reset and potentially dismissed, Yaniv said.
“We [set future dismissals for] most live arrests, unless the defendant has a long rap sheet, in which case we’ll typically offer a violation,” he said. “Drug misuse issues get referred to the treatment court.”
Petit larceny cases generally involve the shoplifting of items valued at $1,000 or less. Higher amounts are categorized as grand larceny.
Defense lawyers and advocates say many petit larcenies are smaller crimes of desperation, in which people attempt to steal hygiene products or enough food to tide them over for a day.
In other cases, shoplifters steal multiples of items — boxes of chocolates, shampoo— to re-sell for cash. Decades-long rap sheets, like Ibarra’s, do not help their cases.
The New York County Defender Services, which represents people arrested in Manhattan, reviewed for THE CITY all of its 2018 cases in which petit larceny was the most serious charge. The review found that at least 308 of the 1,092 defendants — roughly 28 percent — were known to be homeless.
Another 157 lived in supportive housing or other readily identifiable low-income homes, bringing up the proportion of indigent arrestees to at least 42 percent.
More than three-quarters of the New York County Defenders’ petit larceny clients were black or Latinx. The defendants skewed older than in other types of crime, the defenders said.
The majority of cases ended with a guilty plea to petit larceny. About a quarter of the defendants in those cases — 165 in all — got jail time.
Most of those sentenced to jail got less than 15 days, according to the defenders’ analysis.
Bumping up charges
The Manhattan Defenders said the arrests and jail time perpetuate a vicious circle.
“This demonstrates what every public defender intuitively understands: The main driver of criminal justice system involvement is poverty,” said legal director Sergio de la Pava. “Prosecutions for petty thefts driven by poverty should be discontinued and replaced by social attempts to address that root cause.”
Shoplifters at certain stores are sometimes put on trespassing lists. Should defendants attempt to steal there again, Manhattan prosecutors can bump up petit larceny charges to a burglary in the third degree, which is a felony.
Brooklyn does not do the bump-up, a spokesperson confirmed.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said it expanded its own Project Reset this summer, and now allows people with criminal histories who are arrested for petit larcenies and other misdemeanors to attend a one-session program to get their cases dismissed.
“Generally speaking, we are increasingly sensitive to crimes driven by poverty and seek to dismiss or divert categories of cases that are often driven by poverty,” Danny Frost, a Manhattan DA spokesperson, said in an email.
While petit larceny arrests have declined in recent years, along with other crimes, the number has dropped significantly less compared to overall arrests.
Cops working with stores
People who try to shoplift in well-surveilled chain stores are often quickly caught. In 2018, the Upper West Side’s 20th Precinct estimated that 42 percent of the area’s petit larceny cases came from eight Walgreens and Duane Reade stores, according to the West Side Rag.
The NYPD’s Crime Prevention Division regularly communicates with Walgreens about theft there, police said, and has briefed the company on crime numbers at their outlets.
Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey, commanding officer of the division, said the goal of such consultations is to prevent crime.
“We don’t look at it on if this person’s doing it or that person’s doing it,” she said. “We look at prevention as removing the opportunity for someone to come in and steal something, and it starts from the outside of your business … the appearance of your business, the lighting, again, the locks, if you have your windows protected, all of those things.”
Walgreens did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But not all businesses want shoplifters to leave in handcuffs. At Fine Care Pharmacy in Brooklyn, cashier John Paul Panzardi has yet to call the police when seeing someone trying to steal something.
“If I catch them trying to put it in their pocket, I say, ‘Hey, are you trying to purchase that?’” he said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, sorry, I have something going on in my head, I wasn’t thinking.’ If they give the product back, they usually walk out, that’s it. Either that or they purchase it.”
Ibarra, meanwhile, will be staying away from Western Beef. While he was happy to avoid jail time, he said he wasn’t sure how minor shoplifting cases should be handled.
“Some people, you know, if they get away with it, then they’ll do it on the regular,” he said. “But I really needed it, that’s why I did it. I really try to stay out of trouble, because it’s very bad.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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