NEW (FOX 5 NEWS) - It's been a dirty secret of the criminal justice system for a long time: thousands of people going to jail for minor offenses like drinking in public or spitting. But under a new policy in Manhattan, police can decide on the spot if you get handcuffed, a summons or a warning.
"Me, unfortunately I was put through the system and I did not belong there -- for something that was very minor, and the penalties are very harsh, especially on the minorities," Eric Gonzalez said. He said the arrest cost him his job. He believes police officers should have options when dealing with offenses urinating in public or riding a bike on a sidewalk.
That is the plan devised by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
"What we've attempted to do is give them more discretion," Bratton said. "Give an oral warning, give a written warning that we'll be developing, give a summons if appropriate, or make an arrest if that's what's necessary."
The change comes as the police department says overall crime is at record low levels. Yet tensions between police and communities of color remain a concern. Bratton said they are drawing one hard line.
"If you smoke marijuana on the street, you're going to probably be arrested," Bratton said. "Look at our arrest numbers, they're up for that offense. A lot of people did not get the message last year, that you cannot still smoke marijuana on the streets of New York City."
Critics of lessening the penalties for quality of life crimes fear it will open the door to the bad old days and create a climate of disorder and danger on the streets. But former NYPD lieutenant Darrin Porcher says it doesn't need to get to that point.
"Something that should be constantly looked at to ensure that we're not going back to those earlier years of the 1990s when we had upwards of 2,000 homicides here in the city of New York," Porcher said.
This policy could spread citywide. Bratton said that if it does, the NYPD will make sure everyone knows the law so there is no confusion.