On Demand: Prominent District Attorneys Talk Reforming the System From the Inside Out
In the face of mounting media criticism over progressive policies during a rise in gun violence, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg made firm arguments that policies that end racial disparities go hand in hand with combatting gun violence.
Four of New York’s most prominent district attorneys came together to share how they are enacting racial justice measures while continuing to combat crime. The CLE that took place as part of the New York State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting is now available for streaming on demand.
Since taking office in 2016 during a spike in gun crime in Brooklyn, Gonzalez says his office has “driven down gun violence and saw fewer homicides all while pursuing a progressive agenda. I believe the two go hand in hand together. We cannot have safety without fairness. We can do both.”
Gonzalez made the statement as part of a roundtable discussion hosted by the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law. The panel discussion was part of the association’s two-week Annual Meeting.
Four district attorneys—Gonzalez from Brooklyn, Bragg from Manhattan, Mimi Rocah of Westchester County and John J. Flynn of Erie County–acknowledged that the mores of their communities differ and so their approach to justice are not uniform. However, they all spoke of efforts to divert offenders from prison in one way or another.
Gonzalez made it clear that his office’s approach to combatting racial inequality in the justice system is not a political talking point, but an effort based in analysis and statistics. He detailed his office’s partnership with CUNY Institute for State and Local Government to analyze arrests and sentencing to pinpoint unequal decisions made in bail and sentencing.
“We looked at four years of data and examined hundreds of thousands of cases and decision-making points made by prosecutors and judges,” said Gonzalez. He says the analysis revealed a major decline in disparities during the time he was in office. “For the first time in the office’s history, African Americans and Latinos did as well as whites in off ramps, diversions from the system.”
Bragg said he is looking for a similar academic partnership and is particularly concerned with disparities in sentencing for misdemeanors in his office. “In Manhattan, Blacks and Latinos are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated for a misdemeanor than white individuals,” said Bragg.
Lucy Lang, New York State inspector general, inquired about how the DAs work with victims.
Flynn detailed how his office uses a team of interrupters that identifies young victims of gun violence who have not been caught up in the legal system to help them avoid getting shot again and to prevent them from getting caught up in a life of crime.
Bragg said that he had visited with a high school youth group during a recent weekend and heard about how gun violence impacts their lives. “I’m very concerned with the racial disparity in our system and part of that is also stopping the trauma caused by gun violence,” said Bragg. Bragg said the students were talking “about their fears and traumas, and gun violence topped the list. You could hear the anxiety in their voices. It was palpable. Dealing with that trauma of growing up with gun violence has to be part of the racial justice conversation too.”
Bragg said he had recently appointed a point person for gun violence prosecution who would work to identify how to target the small groups of perpetrators responsible for gun violence in Manhattan.
Gonzalez detailed how victims play a central role in his restorative justice program. He said many in his community do not think incarceration is the solution to crime. “We involve the victims rather than simply incarcerating people. We have been doing that increasingly with violent cases as well. We do it in cases where you might typically think a DA would seek incarceration, but the decision is made by the victims and their families. We take our cues from them. In a lot of cases, it doesn’t serve the victims to send someone to jail.”
Lang inquired about how the DAs deal with a media that has grown increasingly focused on portraying racial justice policies as being responsible for rising crime despite the lack of evidence. Gonzalez said that gun violence is a racial justice because 97 percent of the people it impacts are people of color. He noted that he takes a lot of cues from his community and the standards they support rather than being concerned by the media.
Bragg, who has been the center of a media firestorm following reporting on a memo he issued detailing his office’s approach to prosecuting low level crimes, admitted he had imagined a much different first three weeks in office.
Bragg said the memo “led to a lot of disclarity for which I am accountable. I had been anticipating spending the first few months doing community engagement and not doing a lot of media. But for the sake of public confidence, I needed to respond in my own voice.” Bragg said he had to clarify “individualized justice” and describe a framework that includes “discretion allowing career prosecutors with great experience and judgment to apply that within our framework. It’s been an interesting first three weeks. I hope to move to a process where it’s now an internal conversation.”