‘A COMPREHENSIVE BLUEPRINT’: Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, right, has called for a fundamental restructuring of how his office handles prosecutions, particularly with regard to incarceration. He convened a 70-person committee—of union leaders, community advocates, law enforcement, academics, former prisoners, attorneys and others, including former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, at left—to help steer reforms. 

In announcing a 17-point program he said would ensure fairness and justice for all Brooklynites, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said he was going smart, not soft on crime.

Saying that prosecutors, including himself, have for too long been reflexive in response to criminality, Mr. Gonzalez said he and his office will make more holistic appraisals of the circumstances that allowed criminal behavior to happen in the first place and cultivate preventive measures.

Pre-emptive Approach

“We need to prevent crimes from happening in the first place, and too often DAs' offices have been completely reactive, only responding to crime after it’s been committed,” he said in announcing the initiative on March 11.  

Among the cornerstones of “Justice2020” is a de-emphasis of punitive measures, particularly incarceration; the establishment of partnerships with neighborhood advocates and organizations to increase diversion options; and targeted use of data and analytics to institute and track accountability and transparency, including allegations of police misconduct.

“Prosecutors should think carefully of what they’re hoping to achieve and why,” the Brooklyn DA said. “What resolution is the best for this particular defendant, for this victim and for our community? Will this intervention keep us safer or not?”

The initiative was put together using recommendations from a committee of dozens of people, including theologians, union leaders, community advocates, law enforcement, academics, former prisoners, attorneys and others, including former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Medgar Evers College President and former city Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, who flanked Mr. Gonzalez at the announcement.

Among the plan’s “action points” are the institution of pre-plea alternatives for all drug-possession defendants and the reduction of barriers to participation; parole recommendations following the serving of minimum sentences; vigorous prosecution of gender-based violence, including sexual assault and date rape; and the sealing or expungement of past marijuana convictions.

Community Connections

The committee also wants the DA’s Office to reduce its prosecution of school-based offenses and, relatedly, work to keep young people out of the justice system by diverting misdemeanor and non-violent felony arrests. It also recommends a robust partnership with the Department of Education to encourage “restorative justice,” which fosters opportunities for young people to assume responsibility for wrongdoing and then to make amends.

The DA’s Office will also work with community members to identify “high-risk individuals” who might be predisposed to committing violence and then help them through community-based services. According to the report, they include people who have experienced trauma and mental-health issues, who are poor, have not done well in school, live in substandard housing and altogether lack opportunity.

 “We’re going to focus our resources on addressing the underlying conditions that often lead to violence in the first place,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

The committee also suggested developing new ways to independently investigate and, if need be, prosecute police misconduct, which, the report noted, “must be taken seriously and handled transparently.”

'A Cultural Shift'

Mr. Lippman, now an attorney in private practice who also lectures on criminal-justice reform, said the initiative is in the vanguard.

“Taken together these recommendations represent nothing less than a cultural shift,” he said. “Justice is about safety and accountability and transparency and about the community and not about conviction rates and punishment and certainly not about the amount of money in your pocket or the color of your skin.”

Mr. Gonzalez, who succeeded the late Kenneth P. Thompson, himself outspoken on issues of racial disparities in the justice system, said that although prosecutors were “often guided by good intentions and a severe and sincere commitment to public safety,” outcomes are too often considered successful only when they result in convictions and incarceration that, he added, disproportionately affect people of color and destabilized families.

“People who are incarcerated come out of prison more likely, not less likely, to commit additional crimes,” he said. “Accountability is not synonymous with punishment...We’re going to make criminal convictions and incarceration a last resort and when we do seek it we’re going to try to minimize excessive sanctions whenever possible.”

Shortsighted Approach

Meting out punishment without regard for the consequences to the guilty party, to families and communities is shortsighted, he said, adding that the emphasis on penalties was “flawed.”

According to the report summarizing the recommendations, the job of a Prosecutor and of the Assistant District Attorneys “is to promote community safety.”

That entails entirely more than punishment for criminals, the report noted.

“It requires engaging with communities to determine what safety and justice mean for them, identifying the most effective ways to hold accountable those who do harm, giving victims a sense of justice and healing, and promoting strong, healthy communities,” it said.

And while the emphasis will be on prevention and rehabilitation, imprisonment remains a solid option. “We will enhance our prosecution on drivers of violent crime,” Mr. Gonzalez said, adding that some who are convicted “need to go to prison.

“We are going to hold folks accountable.”

Ensuring Fairness

Arnold Kriss, a former Assistant District Attorney in the Brooklyn DA’s Office as well an NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Trials, praised Mr. Gonzalez for first identifying “needed” reforms and then for having the courage to implement them, singling out the loosening of bail restrictions, which he said have built-in obstacles, particularly for the indigent. But he cautioned that further and necessary reform—on bail, expungement and other issues—would need state legislators’ approval.

Still, he said, “what District Attorney Gonzalez is doing is trying to make the change...There’s got to be fairness.”

Importantly, Mr. Kriss said, overcoming the inherent tension between police and progressive-minded prosecutors will need commitment and cooperation among the NYPD, prosecutors and the community.

“What (police) are worried about is if crime spikes up, they’re going to be blamed,” he said, “and they’re going to look for somebody to blame because they don’t want to take the heat. They’re going to blame (crime increases) on bail, on pleas, on youngsters that are diverted.”

Tend to Victims' Needs

And while the emphasis of a prosecutor’s job is necessarily focused on defendants, Mr. Kriss said, a consequence of fundamental reform such as that proposed by Mr. Gonzalez creates an obligation to ensure that justice for victims, and even for witnesses, is also carried out.

“You’ve got to be equally concerned about the victim that took a bullet wound who now has difficulty finding a job,” he said.

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