Ending the criminalization of poverty and the state’s reliance on incarceration were the two big messages at the “Justice for All” town hall meeting last week at I.S. 392 in Brownsville.
The free event, hosted by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Attorney General Letisha James, was an opportunity to review with residents the newly enacted reforms out of the D.A.’s office and out of Albany; as well as to answer audience questions about recent crime incidents in the area and policing procedures.
The town hall was centered around highlighting the D.A.’s Justice 2020 initiative. State Assemblymember Latrice Walker and State Senator Zellnor Y. Myrie, both of whom represent districts covering Central and East Brooklyn, including Brownsville and East New York, were in attendance.
Also in attendance were City Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel, representing Brownsville and Brooklyn North Police Chief Jeffrey Maddrey and other civic and community leaders.
Most of the reforms are aimed at reducing incarceration rates. And although the majority will kick in come January 2020, some have already started– just as Brownsville has experienced a recent uptick in the number of shooting deaths. Despite these incidents, however, NYPD reports alternative approaches are working and that crime is down overall in Brooklyn.
“There are people who believe if we reduced reliance on incarceration, crime will go up. It won’t.”
According to D.A. Gonzalez, increased jail time is not the solution and has done little to curb the number of crime incidents in the borough. His office reports major progress with alternative policing since his special election in 2017, following the passing of former D.A. Kenneth Thompson three years ago. Under his administration, Brooklyn has 98 homicides total, compared to nearly 800 in 1991, a record in the borough.
The office also reports reducing marijuana possession and smoking prosecutions by 90 percent. It has launched a hate crimes bureau and has resolved 70 percent of Brooklyn’s young adult court cases without convictions.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Gozalez at the town hall, “there are people who are dangerous and violent out there and who will hurt us. My office will be vigorously investigating, prosecuting and incapacitating those folks so they can’t hurt us.
“But for too long, we’ve failed to distinguish when jail was necessary in order to keep us safe and when jail is being overused. We were told years ago, if we ended stop and frisk policing, crime will go up; it didn’t. There are people who believe if we reduced reliance on incarceration, crime will go up. It won’t.”
Less than one percent of Brooklyn’s population drives 60 percent of serious violence in the community, said Gonzalez. “It’s not the whole building and whole community. So if we focus on the violent drivers of crime; we can drop the incidents without widespread sweeps and mass arrests.”
The four pillars of the D.A.’s office’s Justice 2020 initiative include:
- Considering non-jail resolutions at every juncture of a case and shifting toward community-based responses to crime.
- Establishing early release as the default position – not the exception – in most parole proceedings.
- Prioritizing collaboration with neighborhood leaders and community-based organizations to provide more diversion opportunities and engage stakeholders as partners.
- Implementing updated data and analytics systems to drive reform and ensure accountability and transparency.
“Eric Gonzalez has picked up the mantel of his predecessor Kenneth Thompson; his progressive leadership and his policies are making a big difference,” said A.G. James at the town hall. “Ending the criminalization of poverty, finding innovative approaches to ending institutional racism; healing the festering wounds of distrust between the community and the police… This is the time to talk about a revolution in this criminal justice system.
“We should not treat mental illness and poverty as crimes. Brooklyn North Chief Maddrey has done a lot to heal the distrust, as well as Senator Myrie and Assemblywoman Walker on bail reform.”
Walker was lead author and sponsor of a bail reform bill and part of a team that negotiated for speedier trials and discovery reform, reducing the number of people who will languish in jail because they cannot afford bail.
“Bail was supposed to be about returning to court and not about early incarceration,” said Walker. “What I’m most proud of is that 84 percent of people who are presently on Rikers Island will have an opportunity to be released.”
The bail reform bill goes into effect in January 2020. “The New York City Council, however, just decided recently to use the same number [of people to be released] to build four new jails. It was a land grab; it was premature; and it was misguided.
“Why they didn’t wait to decide what effect it would have had on Rikers Island before building all of these new beds, I don’t know,” Walker said.
“True justice is intersectional,” said James, as a reminder that effective reform calls for alignment from the city, the state and from Washington: “We have seen a federal government that is undermining justice at every turn, so we must fight on every front.”
New York seems to be stepping forward, starting with criminal justice reforms that take aim at Brooklyn and that seem to be working so far.
“I grew up in East New York,” Gonzalez reminded the audience of mostly residents of Brownsville and neighboring East New York. “I was there during the crack cocaine epidemic; I was there when they called my neighborhood the murder capital of New York City. I understand public safety and the concerns we have. But I was there when people felt under-served or made an example of– sometimes over-policed; sometimes under-policed…
“I felt the DA’s office would allow me to have some skin in the game.”
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