ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Ronnie Earl had racked up more than 100 convictions when New York City police found him sleeping on the roof of a housing project last month. It was mainly low-level stuff — drugs and trespassing came up a lot — but when the 55-year-old went in front of the judge on the new trespassing charge, prosecutors had had enough. They asked for a year in jail on the misdemeanor.

“We were shocked that the DA’s office objected when the judge indicated he was going to give Mr. Earl 30 days,” said attorney Irwin Shaw, who heads the Manhattan criminal defense practice of the Legal Aid Society. “Because the complaint they drew up alleges he was sleeping on the rooftop.”

Earl also has a spot on the Manhattan district attorney’s list of the borough’s 12 worst repeat misdemeanor offenders, a revolving door of mostly small-timers who clog an already backlogged court system. District Attorney Cyrus Vance said more than 2,000 people whom he calls “career misdemeanants” have been convicted of eight or more misdemeanors or higher-level crimes between 2005 and 2010.

Prosecutors want state legislation that would automatically turn a certain number of misdemeanor convictions into a felony calling for prison time or court-ordered programs to try and stop the repeating crime cycle. Federal authorities have a similar tool with enhancement factors for repeat offenses, including misdemeanors.

Eight other states have varying statutes that raise penalties for habitual or repeat misdemeanor offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They include Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services data show 10,650 individuals convicted of five or more crimes across the state over the past three years, with one rapid repeater notching 51 convictions including six felonies since 2008, his latest in the Bronx. New York City altogether accounted for 8,824 of the repeaters, more than 80 percent.

Most are drug crimes, larcenies and thefts. DCJS Acting Commissioner Sean Byrne began posting the list of persistent offenders last year on a secure law enforcement website, updating it every three months. He urged prosecutors and police to monitor and make sure judges know them and to request high bail or jail time.

In the first year, the list declined from about 11,500. Byrne said it’s no coincidence. “You get people to focus on their persistent offender population, and by focusing on it you conceivably take them out of circulation.”

“These people by and large are supplementing their living or are actually making their living committing crime,” Byrne said. “They affect the quality of life for New Yorkers. They put themselves into circumstances … where they might opportunistically or accidentally escalate their behavior to a much more serious crime … Society’s given these folks break after break after break. At some point society puts its foot down.”

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said proposed legislation to crack down on repeat offenders is a poor move toward more incarceration instead of rehabilitation. New York City has increased marijuana misdemeanor arrests tenfold in the past decade, with a disproportion of blacks and Latinos arrested, and they would also be the losers here, she said.

“California is digging out from the mass incarceration that has resulted from similar laws,” Lieberman said. “And the racial implications are huge. … The ramifications, the collateral effect of the disparate, lopsided enforcement are enormous.”

And defense lawyers said ramping up prison time for low-level crimes could have an unintended consequence, increasing court backlogs as more defendants decline to plead guilty to dispose of their cases.

In Earl’s case, the judge set bail at $2,500, a third of what the prosecutor asked. He is due back in court next week, and the defense now may insist on a trial that could take days.

“He’s basically in our courts every month,” said Erin Duggan, spokeswoman for Manhattan prosecutors. Earl has refused social services and is essentially serving a life sentence 30 days at a time, she said.

Bills were introduced in the Senate and Assembly in January: One increases the penalties for a Class A misdemeanor after three misdemeanor convictions within 10 years, and another stiffens the penalty if there are five other misdemeanors within five years. Both were referred to committees. Neither has advanced.

Vance proposes eight misdemeanors in five years rising to a felony. He said that gives judges more tools for ordering supervision and services or longer jail time.

“Is there someplace we can draw the line?” said Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne, who heads the state association of DAs. “There’s been substantial resistance by some people against setting the mark. But can’t you set it somewhere?”

Byrne has also asked prosecutors and police to check whether persistent offenders’ DNA is in the state data bank, which is checked against crime scene DNA. Samples are required from people convicted in New York of felonies and selected misdemeanors. Some prosecutors have begun requiring it as a condition of plea bargains to lesser crimes.

A DCJS study of 2009 data showed 89 percent of suspects arrested for a felony had a prior misdemeanor conviction.

“That’s the concern. If they’re committing felonies, plead guilty (to a lower charge), do time, do not get treatment, do not get help, in some cases cannot be forced into treatment, what type of felony are they going to commit next?” Champagne said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

Comments (5)
  1. Tom says:

    Hey guys don’t you know that they are closing down some NY state prisons because real felony crimes are down. What better way to fill the state prisons up than be able to make a poor loser have to do 3 or 4 years in prison because he has 3,4 or 5 prior B.S. misdemeanor convictions because now he becomes a felon because of a heartless and harsh law. They want to send a prostitute, a pot smoker, a small time shoplifter or a turnstile jumper to state prison label him or her a felon and make their life even harder. When they come out they will either work at minimum wage jobs and barely exist or hate the world and pick up a handgun and turn into a real felon who rob and kill because they will feel there life stinks and they rather kill or be killed than do 4 years for panhandling or shoplifting. This is all politics to fill prisons up. You can give these people a year in a county or city jail if they go to trial so offer them a plea bargain of 30 days to 6 months which is still a hard but reasonable punishment for a petty crime.

  2. Trishe says:

    This is ridiculous! DA’s are just LAZY!! If pot was legal this issue would be null. Jail is NOT REHABILITATION, it is COLLEGE TO BECOME A CRIMINAL, therefore the DA’s should know that their job will NOT get easier if they send habitual low level criminals to prison. What is needed is a system to assist individuals who have committed crimes restabish with the community. Find jobs, housing and shelter the basic essentials otherwise the same thing will happen again. Also, cops should stop making stupid arrests, ei: smoking pot, jay walking and even jumping the turnstail. The police department should be allowed to give tickets and be done with. The police should NOT be mandated to make a certain number of arrest per month,.

    1. Nick says:

      You’re all over the map. First of all, this story has nothing to do with marijuana.I don’t know why you would even bother to bring that up. Secondly, you compare jail to college, and then say jail should be MORE rehabilitational. What the hell are you even saying?

  3. Renard Atkins says:

    OH, c’mon, gives us all a break. Make low-level and non-violent criminals felons? What happened to DA Vances’s promise to stop the illegal Rockefeller revolving door low-level incareration which was the model for ruination of our society? And for that matter, who are these crimminals individually? Some may be mental patients kicked-out of the systems, like Jimmy Carter did in the mid-70s. Others might be distaffed War veterans who can’t adjust to civilian life on their own. Still others could just be chronically unemployed and homeless, and can’t get up from skinny. What’re gonna do? Have the law give them room and board? With all the facilities of a comfortable existence? and would these low-level offenders be put in maxioum secutity situations? Vance and others stated that they were trying to stop this insanity, but it seems that they are trying to resume it through a back-door method. I would advise them to re-read “Les Misalerabes”: the infamous inspector spent hge resources of the police and years of his own life to capture a pety theif who stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family in Imperial France. Y’think this “model” should be replicated?

  4. chris wood says:

    da you’ve lost your mind how about 4 felonys convictions and the death penality is applicable

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