Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/921 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 22:49:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) After Intake Pause, City's Supervised Release Program Set for Large Expansion https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9645-intake-pause-new-york-city-supervised-release-program-expansion-rikers-jail-bail https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9645-intake-pause-new-york-city-supervised-release-program-expansion-rikers-jail-bail 5 justice system public

Four New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


After a four-month hiatus as the courts struggled to go virtual amid the coronavirus outbreak, New York City's supervised pretrial release program is taking new clients again in all five boroughs.

Supervised release, established as a middle-ground between bail and release on recognizance, allows defendants to return to their communities before trial, under the watch of a case manager who checks in regularly, and also links the client to social services. The program has been lauded by some elected officials and prosecutors as an effective tool to ensure defendants make required court appearances and has been a growing part of the city's decarceration effort over the past decade, particularly in recent years.

But when the pandemic forced court proceedings to go online in March, supervised release intake grinded to a halt. Still, funding for the program almost tripled in the recently-passed fiscal year 2021 city budget and now judges in all five boroughs are again taking up the option at arraignments. Throughout it all, the 3,000 existing participants continued in the program using remote check-ins instead of on-site ones, while the city jail population has dropped to approximately 3,900 as of July 3, down from a daily average of over 8,300 in 2018 and about 11,700 in 2013.

"Supervised release is a crucial part of this administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce the city’s jail population," wrote Miriam Popper, who oversees the initiative as the executive director of Pretrial Justice Initiatives at the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), in an email. "It is important that attorneys, judges, and defendants have this option, particularly during this public health crisis, when we are trying to decrease the number of pretrial people in city custody."

In the scheme of New York State's pretrial statuses, supervised release falls somewhere in the middle in terms of how restrictive it is for the defendant -- remand to jail without the option of bail being the most restrictive and release on recognizance being the least. It still places some obligations on the defendant, like checking-in with case managers and creating an independent living plan, but provides greater freedom than in bail cases, where returning to court is conditioned, in part, on a desire to become financially whole.

Supporters of the program say it’s a constructive tool, relying on relationship- and community-building to not only encourage court appearances but to help foster better outcomes for clients after trial.

"The whole idea is to take people who are most often disconnected from the services they need to rebuild or reimagine their lives and, through supervised release, get them connected to those services," said Stanley Richards, executive vice president of The Fortune Society, which provides housing and a wide variety of other supports to individuals in the program.

"Supervised release is sort of the safety net that continues on with people throughout the adjudication of their cases to get them the services," he said.

First piloted in Queens in 2009, then in Manhattan in 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the initiative would expand citywide in 2015, with a $13.8 million investment from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance's asset forfeiture coffers.

“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” de Blasio said in a 2015 statement. “Money bail is a problem because – as the system currently operates in New York – some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”

As part of the same announcement, then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton praised the initiative as a public safety tool. “This program moves the city towards a more fair and equitable criminal justice system by decreasing unnecessary detention for those individuals awaiting trial, while more accurately assessing public safety risk and the supervision necessary to prevent people from reentering the criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.

Court appearance rates for supervised release participants are similar to cases where bail is set and where defendants are released on recognizance. Between March 2016 and March 2019, the court appearance rate for the 12,262 participants was 88 percent citywide, the same as releases without supervision, and just below the 91 percent appearance rate for bail cases. (The boroughs with the highest court appearance rates for supervised release were Manhattan and Queens, with 92 percent each, where the program has been running for longer.)

Last year, in anticipation of changes to the bail law, Vance invested another $100 million to be spent over two years -- coupled with additional city funding -- to drastically scale up the program.

In the city's current Fiscal Year 2021 budget, passed July 1, $117.5 million has been allocated to supervised release, including $50 million from Vance, a 270 percent increase over the fiscal year 2020 budget, according to a New York City Council spokesperson (a spokesperson for MOCJ said contracts are still being finalized and the final budget may be slightly smaller than the Council's figure). The city expects to triple or quadruple participation under the expansion, according to a City Hall press release announcing the new funding last year.

And it appears to be on track. In all of 2019, 641 defendants in Manhattan were released pretrial under supervision, compared with 1,162 in the first six months of 2020, according to Vance's office, even with the pandemic slowing the program.

"In a way, COVID kind of buried the lead," said Aubrey Fox, executive director of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, which contracts with city government and first piloted the program in Queens. "This is like the quickest scaling-up process that I've experienced in my career."

"The increase in the city budget was in response to the new needs created by the State's bail reform law," Popper wrote in the email to Gotham Gazette. "Supervised Release has now expanded its eligibility to anyone pretrial, making an important set of resources available to a sizable new pre-trial population."

"The expanded Supervised Release will continue to utilize community-based resources, rather than law enforcement, to help get our clients back to court," she said.

But the changes to the bail law require judges to select the "least restrictive" appropriate pretrial status. With most misdemeanors no longer eligible for bail, supervised release is actually the most restrictive option in many cases.

"We don't actually want people to be ordered to supervised release if they don't need to be," said Mike Rempel, director of jail reform at Center for Court Innovation, which runs supervised release in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. "We don't want to over-supervise people who can show up at their court dates without the supervision."

MOCJ contracts with New York City Criminal Justice Agency and two other nonprofits to administer the program: Center for Court Innovation; and Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services. The organizations use a risk assessment tool to determine each defendant's likelihood of returning to court and make a recommendation to a judge.

In supervised release cases, defendants are connected with a case manager from one of the three contracted organizations. The organizations in turn work with other providers, like Fortune Society, to connect them with a range of social services. Typical supportive work includes connecting participants to public assistance, helping them enroll in substance abuse treatment programs, or helping them find housing, employment, and schooling.

While checking in with a case manager and the frequency of the check-ins is mandated, other aspects of the program are voluntary.

"It's not meant to be a law enforcement-heavy approach to supervision," Fox said. "There are requirements, but the idea is to create this relationship between the individual who has been assigned to the program and their case manager."

When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, court administrators struggled with the technical element of ensuring that confidential conversations between defendants and MOCJ's court representatives could continue to take place at arraignment, once those proceedings had moved to a digital format.

From March 17 to mid-July, the New York State Office of Court Administration (OCA), in consultation with MOCJ, suspended new client intake, while supervised release providers continued to serve roughly 3,000 current defendants through remote contact.

Around the same period, gun violence in the city skyrocketed. And more recently, between July 5 and August 2 shootings increased 165 percent compared to the same 28-day period last year, according to the NYPD.

De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea have maintained the increase in shootings and murders is in part the result of suspended court operations. Court administrators, district attorneys, and public defenders have all refuted the claim, which is based on the idea that with court capacity limited, violent and crime-prone individuals are returning to the streets without the full accountability of the criminal legal system. Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for OCA, called the claims "at best totally factually incorrect and at worst an attempt to shift the blame for an increase in street violence," and prosecutors have insisted that arraignments have continued.

In the first quarter of 2019, the last period data is available, 8 percent of supervised release participants were rearrested for a felony -- which would include gun charges -- while awaiting trial. MOCJ did not provide comparative rearrest data for bail and release on recognizance cases and OCA directed arrest inquiries to the police department, which did not respond to requests for comment.

"Anyone who might have been released on SR [supervised release] instead of having bail set was not eligible for that avenue of release," wrote Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in an email to Gotham Gazette, in reference to the possibility of release on one’s own recognizance (ROR). "It is rare that people charged with gun cases are released ROR."

"Accordingly, I don't think supervised release has any relevance to gun cases," she added.

With new entrants into supervised release suspended during the pandemic, more defendants in cases of criminal possession of a weapon were released on recognizance than on bail. From March 16 to July 26, 422 people facing weapons possession charges were released on recognizance, compared with 388 for whom bail was set, according to data provided by OCA.

"I think in general there may have been some people who would have really benefited from supervised release services but it was not so much that as a result they were detained," said Fox of the Criminal Justice Agency, indicating that some released on recognizance could have been in the supervised release program had it been taking new entrants.

While supervised release stopped taking new participants between mid-March and mid-July, providers were tapped to provide a similar service to a new clientele: individuals released from city jails because of COVID-19 health concerns.

Between March 16 and July 5, the city released roughly 1,500 jail detainees to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. At least 313 of them -- those who had completed trial, were serving city jail terms, and were let out under an early release program known as "6A" -- were put under the purview of the three supervised-release providers. While the form of the supervision was similar to the pretrial program, the conditions of their 6A releases meant checking in with a case manager daily, a much stricter requirement than the weekly or monthly check-ins of pretrial releases.

Providers, who normally have a representative in the courtroom at arraignment, were put in the position of having to reach and orient new participants outside of the typical framework. 

"Now suddenly people were being released in the middle of the night from Rikers," Fox said. "How do we connect them to supervised release?"

"I have to say this period of pause was a period of intense work and creativity for all the supervised release providers," he added.

"Anytime we release someone, we have to make sure we work to keep everyone as safe as possible, but we had a real imperative about saving lives, that came first," de Blasio told reporters at a press conference in April, in response to questions about how supervision of the early COVID releases was working.

"The fact is, we're going to keep doing whatever it takes to monitor these individuals," he said. "And then, as soon as the crisis is over, the way the releases occurred, if anyone needs to be brought back to jail, they will be.

MOCJ said the three providers are still supervising roughly 70 people who were released under 6A. Of the original 313 early releases, 39 were rearrested by April 30, including one on a gun charge, according to data posted by MOCJ's official Twitter account.

Of the 3,000 participants in supervised release during the height of the pandemic, Fox said engagement remained high. "The programs have all worked really assiduously to keep engaging people," he said. "It's gone surprisingly well."

"We pivoted from being a court-date reminder service to being a wellness initiative where we were texting everyone daily wellness texts that offered links to services," in addition to personalized calls, Fox said. He said several hundred referrals to social services were made during the state of emergency.

"That offering is definitely not as intense as [pre-pandemic] supervised release," Fox noted, "but we did find it was quite effective in terms of at least giving people a sense that somebody cares about them."

One of the main challenges case managers have faced is reestablishing lines of communication remotely, especially with clients who have unstable housing and limited access to a phone or computer.

"This was an immediate challenge of working with homeless individuals without phones," said Rempel of  Center for Court Innovation. "We had to be able to communicate with them remotely."

Rempel, Fox, and Richards all said their organizations purchased phones and devised ways to distribute them safely without risking exposure to the virus, either through drop-offs or contacts in the community.

Many of the service providers Gotham Gazette spoke with believe the coronavirus crisis may have helped secure the supervised release initiative, as officials seek alternatives to crowded jails and as well-established channels of communication become essential.

"As the courts start to reenvision how they will be operating in this new normal, supervised release is going to play a pivotal role in working with community-based organizations to make sure that we don't incarcerate people who don't need to be detained," Richards said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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After Intake Pause, City's Supervised Release Program Set for Large Expansion Tue, 04 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Little Support for De Blasio's Claim that Court Shutdown is Driving Gun Violence Surge https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9624-de-blasio-nypd-court-shutdown-gun-violence-increase https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9624-de-blasio-nypd-court-shutdown-gun-violence-increase media avail photo

De Blasio and Shea discuss public safety (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea are marooned on an island with few substantive details to sustain their claim that one of the biggest drivers of New York City's recent increase in gun violence is a pandemic-stalled court system.

The two have repeatedly offered largely unsupported claims that the coronavirus-related suspension of grand juries and a slow-down in gun offense prosecutions has made the courts a major contributor to the surge in shootings throughout the city over the last several months. But representatives from the state courts, district attorney offices, and public defender services have all refuted the administration's claims, while available data paints a somewhat murky picture.

On Monday, the mayor published an open letter to New York Chief Judge Janet Di Fiore and the city’s five district attorneys in which he urged them to work with the city to "do much more," and said he would be reaching out to arrange a meeting with all parties.

Convening grand juries again, which had been halted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, "is important progress, but we will have to do much more in order to reduce the backlog of cases that have, for the most part, been held in abeyance for several months — delaying justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators," de Blasio wrote.

From June 22 to July 19, there were 328 shootings incidents in New York City, more than three times the number in the same period last year, according to CompStat, the NYPD's crime tracker. Over roughly the same 28-day period, even with so many more shootings, gun arrests have dropped by about two-thirds from 2019. The mayor has blamed the uptick on "massive societal disruption" triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout, regularly pointing to a court system that “is not functioning” and emphasizing the lack of grand juries and gun prosecutions. But he has been vague on specifics and has dodged questions about the falling arrest rate.

"It's a pretty few places where we're seeing the uptick, a relatively few people causing the violent crime. We're going after them," de Blasio said on CNN Thursday after questions about the increased shootings and decreased arrests. "We need them prosecuted again. That's the big missing link here because we can't get them off the street if there's not prosecution and the court system functioning."

"We know we don't necessarily need more gun arrests, we need the people that are caught to be prosecuted fully, and then we need the court systems open to get them off the street as quickly as possible," Shea said, seated next to de Blasio at a press briefing on July 17, where they announced an anti-gun violence campaign focused on increasing patrols in high-shooting areas, organizing gun buy-backs, and better deploying the Community Affairs Bureau.

Until recently, de Blasio has largely credited growing joblessness and the upheaval of daily life for the recent violence, while also repeatedly mentioning the courts. Shea has gone further by explicitly blaming recent bail reforms and COVID-related jail releases, which have been backed by the mayor for the most part. The state of the court system is their major area of agreement in explaining the recent gun violence, even as they continue to publicly butt heads on new police reforms backed by the mayor.

Lauding the police department's "precision policing," which focuses on rooting out a smaller number of individuals who officials say are responsible for most violent crime, de Blasio and Shea have blamed the courts and the prosecutors.

"When those courts are opened up, we have a line of cases ready to get the most violent people off the streets. We need the court's help," Shea said at the July 17 press conference.

In an open letter to Chief Judge Janet Di Fiore and the five district attorneys released Monday, de Blasio said 2,000 people had been charged with firearm offenses in New York City, but only about half had been indicted by a grand jury -- a point he and Shea have made before.

Yet the Office of Court Administration, a state entity, insists that the courts have remained open virtually, and district attorneys and public defenders say arraignments have continued by video conference.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has suspended some elements of the Criminal Procedure Law, including the convening of grand juries, as part of the state's emergency response to the virus. But public defenders say no grand juries only means people accused of violent felonies have fewer avenues to be released from jail while they await the administration of justice.

"The idea that a lack of grand juries is somehow increasing shootings is utterly absurd," said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in an interview. "To the extent that the court is not functioning to its full capacity, the result is more people being held in jail than previously would have been."

Grand juries are a constitutional protection that give defendants a chance to have their case thrown out before trial if prosecutors can't show probable cause. In the pandemic, that ability was suspended and only later replaced with a judge's discretion in preliminary hearings where minimal evidence is presented, according to Fontier and other defense attorneys Gotham Gazette interviewed.

Before the pandemic, when a person was arrested for an alleged violent felony, they would be arraigned -- meaning they are formally charged -- and a grand jury would review evidence to decide whether the case would proceed toward trial or be dropped. If the decision was made to indict, the defendant would remain in jail unless bail was set and paid. If the decision was made not to indict, the case was closed and the accused would go free.

During the state of emergency, arraignments have continued and judges still set bail. But with grand juries suspended, the opportunity to get out of jail before trial without taking a plea deal or paying bail has disappeared, multiple public defenders said.

In the past, if a grand jury wasn't convened within five days of an arrest -- which was not uncommon if prosecutors couldn't line-up witnesses or evidence in time -- the defendant would be released under a state statute known as Section 180.80 while their case proceeded. That provision was also suspended by Cuomo's executive order, leaving individuals to take a plea deal, pay bail (if bail is set), or sit in jail, according to the defense attorneys.

"In fact the right to get out based on whether or not a grand jury has indicted you is also suspended as long as they have what's called a preliminary hearing," said Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services. At preliminary hearings, which are being conducted virtually, a judge decides whether there is probable cause to proceed to trial, she said.

"Right now just based on the prosecutor’s charge and the judge saying that feels like a bail case, people are held on bail," Fontier said. 

"And there is no grand jury review, so it's all prosecutors and judges who are deciding who is in jail and who is not," she added.

Since the mid-March state of emergency, the New York City Criminal Court has held nearly 19,000 arraignments and over 600 felony preliminary hearings, according to the Office of Court Administration. Virtually all gun possession and use cases are felonies, according to prosecutors and court representatives.

"Although we share your goals of a safer and stronger city, your plea for a 'functioning and open' court system wholly ignores the reality that the courts have not only always remained open, but have excelled and adapted in ways that were unimaginable only a few months ago," wrote New York Chief Judge Janet Di Fiore in a letter to de Blasio on July 16 (the letter was first reported by The New York Post).

But a day later, at the July 17 press briefing with Shea, the mayor repeated his claims, even raising his voice to a reporter as he was asked again to prove his assertions: "With great respect to my colleagues in the media, I'm going to challenge you to actually report what I said. Listen, the court system is not functioning! You can't have the ability to get people off the streets if the court system's not functioning!"

"There's nowhere near the level of court activity that we had as recently as February, before the coronavirus," the mayor said on WNYC radio a week later, this past Friday, July 24.

"The Mayor’s narrative regarding the operation of the State Court System throughout the pandemic is at best totally factually incorrect and at worst an attempt to shift the blame for an increase in street violence," wrote Lucian Chalfen, the courts' director of public information, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"Despite what some people would say, they should walk into 161st Street or walk into Jay Street," Shea said at a July 16 CompStat meeting with police brass, referring to the locations of state courthouses and ignoring the proceedings that have continued digitally. "Don't tell me that the courts are open. The courts have been shut down for months."

In some cases, like with long-term investigations, prosecutors obtain an indictment through a grand jury before an arrest is made. In the open letter to Di Fiore and the district attorneys Monday, de Blasio indicated this may be hampering the police department's ability to go after the gang activity underwriting the increase in shootings: "Because grand juries have not been sitting, we also cannot present the major cases used to take out the most violent street gangs," he wrote. Nothing prevents the NYPD from arresting someone they suspect of being involved in a shooting, however.

Prosecutors have largely denied any reduction in the vigor with which they pursue gun charges.

“It is wrong to say that the District Attorneys are not prosecuting or that the court system is not functioning,” wrote Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “It is certainly wrong to suggest that the recent uptick in shootings has been caused by the changes in court process that have resulted from the pandemic. It is true that grand juries and trials are on hold. But for months the Bronx DAs office has prosecuted and continues to prosecute cases especially violent offenses. There was no 'slow down.'"

"When an arrest is made, we draft the appropriate complaint and file it with the court," Clark wrote. "Every defendant who has been arrested and charged with a crime has been arraigned."

Similar word came from Manhattan. "Our office aggressively prosecutes violent crime and we have not observed a correlation between the uptick in gun violence and court operations," said Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. "Thanks to the hard work of our prosecutors, professional staff, and court system colleagues, our arraignments never stopped and our preliminary hearings have enabled us to meet our statutory obligations in the absence of a sitting grand jury."

Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, told Gotham Gazette that all prosecutions in the borough had slowed during the height of the pandemic and have only recently begun to pick back up. But he said that hasn't impacted the number of arraignments or people released from jail while they await trial.

"Everything is getting arraigned and those accused of violent felonies can and are being held on bail or remand," he said in an email. "So, no, it doesn’t affect the number of defendants who are at large (leaving aside COVID considerations that are sometimes applied by judges when deciding on bail)."

There is some data to back up de Blasio’s and Shea's claims that defendants in weapons cases are being released at higher rates than in the past, although other data suggests these aren't the main contributors of recent gun violence.

In Manhattan this year, through June 15, there have been 319 arraignments for criminal possession of a weapon, only ten fewer than in the same stretch in 2019, according to Frost. But where 250 of those cases in 2019 resulted in detention, 177 did in 2020, a rate of 55 percent, down from 76% in 2019.

That may be due to a number of reasons, like the city's effort to reduce the jail population in response to the coronavirus, and the discretion given to judges at preliminary hearings, including to set bail.

According to a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), 4,500 people had been released from jails between March 16 and July 5, a third of whom were released due to COVID-19 concerns. Of the COVID-related releases, 193 were re-arrested -- seven of those on gun charges.

The mayor has stood by the move to cut the city jail population, which is now below 4,000, during the pandemic. That figure came after years of reducing the jail census from 11,000 detainees when de Blasio took office in 2014 to roughly 5,400 at the start of the state of emergency in March.

"I am convinced it was the right thing to do because we were thinking about the health and safety of everyone involved and looking to save lives," de Blasio told reports in May in defense of the covid-inspired push to reduce the city jail population. "And, again, when this crisis is over, anyone who is awaiting trial who needs to be reincarcerated will be. So, this was the right approach."

MOCJ did not respond to requests for data on the total number of people with gun charges released from jail. A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Correction referred Gotham Gazette to MOCJ, which they said had received the inquiry.

A Gotham Gazette analysis of weapons arrest data provided by the Office of Court Administration revealed defendants in 48 percent of gun cases between March 16 and June 21 were released on their own recognizance or under supervision, compared with 25 percent during the same period last year. (Gun cases include criminal possession of a weapon and robbery with a weapon.)

In the three-month period between January 1 and March 15, 2020, after new state bail laws passed last year had gone into effect, defendants in 42 percent of weapons cases were released, close to the release rate during the pandemic. (Lawmakers have again increased the number of offenses that are bail eligible, which went into effect on July 1.)

But a New York Post analysis of police data showed only one person released under the 2019 bail reforms has since been charged with a shooting, amid the 528 shootings in the first six months of 2020.

The Office of Court Administration and public defenders have criticized the de Blasio administration's push to reopen in-person courtrooms to criminal proceedings, saying it will put people at risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus. Doing so could disproportionately expose Black and Latino communities, which have already borne a higher toll in the pandemic, defense attorneys say.

Grand juries will be convened again beginning on August 10.

"We have been working to reestablish full court operations, including jury trials," Chalfen, of the Office of Court Administration, wrote in a statement Monday. "While New York City still does not allow indoor dining, the Mayor blithely asks us to call in thousands of people a week Citywide for jury duty. Clearly he has absolutely no understanding of how the criminal justice process works."

Many people familiar with court procedures are alarmed by the push to reopen courtrooms for in-person proceedings.

"Now we have a situation where clients and attorneys are being forced to go to court in unsafe conditions," a caller, who identified themselves as “Lauren” and a public defender in Brooklyn, told de Blasio in an appearance on WNYC radio Friday. "The ventilation systems in the courts are very old." 

"I'm in a high-risk category," Lauren said. "I have plenty of clients who are high risk."

"If there's ways to use remote activity that works, great, but it's not an option to not have a court system because it is one of the things contributing to our – the challenges we're facing as we're trying to address violence," de Blasio responded.

"I have been talking to DAs, I've been talking to police officials and I believe them that there is nowhere near the level of activity that happened," he said. "I mean, it was just a pure factual statement."

While court activity has been reduced, the mayor’s claims it is connected to an increase in gun violence remains refuted by those working in the court system.

"There is no connection to what is happening in the street whatsoever,” said Fontier, the public defender in Harlem, “and I struggle to think how he could possibly make one if he actually tried.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Little Support for De Blasio's Claim that Court Shutdown is Driving Gun Violence Surge Mon, 27 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
American Prosecutors Need Not Wait for Marijuana Legalization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8718-american-prosecutors-need-not-wait-for-marijuana-legalization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8718-american-prosecutors-need-not-wait-for-marijuana-legalization cc ps comm prelim budget

Four New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Last week, Governor Cuomo signed a bill effectively decriminalizing recreational use of marijuana. Once in effect at the end of August, New Yorkers charged with possession of less than two ounces of marijuana will face fines instead of criminal charges. Possession of over two ounces of marijuana maintains high fines and the possibility of jail time.

It is well known that throughout the United States communities of color have been disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests. In 2018, 89% of all New Yorkers arrested for marijuana possession were black or Hispanic; only 7% of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York were white.

The new law fails to address the disparate impact of the pernicious enforcement of marijuana use as grounds for parole and probation violations, but thankfully will allow people already convicted of low-level marijuana possession to have those charges expunged from their criminal records.

This law is an important legislative step towards addressing the over-policing and over-prosecution of our communities, and brings about a statewide change that has already been successfully piloted in parts of New York City thanks to local prosecutors’ sound use of their discretionary power.

In 2014, then-Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson implemented a policy declining to prosecute possession of small amounts of marijuana. In 2018, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance declined to prosecute low-level marijuana possession in his jurisdiction and vacated 3,000 cases and bench warrants for possession and smoking of marijuana. In February 2019, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark declined to prosecute low-level marijuana possession.

These efforts have been mirrored in other states as well. Baltimore District Attorney Marilyn Mosby rightly announced in February that “prosecuting [marijuana] cases ha[s] no public safety value, disproportionately impacts communities of color and erodes public trust, and is a costly and counterproductive use of limited resources.”

Prosecutors across the country should follow the example of these district attorneys. Using their powers, prosecutors don’t need to wait for state or federal marijuana decriminalization or legalization to provide justice.

Prosecutors use their discretion every day to tailor their recommendations on cases; the decision to decline to prosecute certain crimes that do not affect public safety is one way prosecutors should use that discretion to reduce the negative impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color, build trust with the communities they serve, and reduce interactions with the criminal justice system that may cause harm despite benign intent on the part of the system.

Regardless of the outcome of any particular case, contact with the criminal justice system can affect an individual’s employment, interrupt child care, and make community members feel unsafe due to unnecessary system pressure. For prosecutors managing offices with heavy caseloads, the decision to decline to prosecute cases that do not increase public safety is also a strategic one. By lowering caseloads, prosecutors are able to reallocate resources to finding

innovative, evidence-based, restorative responses to serious crimes that cause true harm to our communities.

Local prosecutors across the country have the potential to impact countless people through the thoughtful use of their discretion in ways that reflect local values while prioritizing the safety of all. As New York has demonstrated, prosecutors need not wait on state or national legislative solutions to enact policies that will help enable communities to thrive.

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Lucy Lang is the Executive Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. On Twitter @LucyLangNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

Note: this column has been corrected to note that the Brooklyn DA office announced its policy in 2014 under then-DA Ken Thompson.

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American Prosecutors Need Not Wait for Marijuana Legalization Tue, 06 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
How to Separate District Attorney Candidates All Claiming to be Progressive https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8456-how-to-separate-district-attorney-candidates-all-claiming-to-be-progressive https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8456-how-to-separate-district-attorney-candidates-all-claiming-to-be-progressive queens da with assets of bust

(photo: @QueensDABrown)


The burgeoning progressive prosecutor movement seeks to distinguish between old guard prosecutors and new candidates who promise to address mass incarceration and the criminal law’s disproportionate impact on people of color. In many elections, the contrast between the old and the new is readily apparent, but in Queens County the candidates seeking to succeed long-serving and retiring District Attorney Richard Brown are battling over who will be the most progressive prosecutor.

A recent article in Mother Jones profiled Tiffany Cabán, the candidate who appears to have captured the support of those most invested in a new prosecutorial order. The article’s author writes that Cabán “has a radical vision for the position: she says she’d incarcerate as few offenders as possible.”  

Reflecting on that statement forces one to realize just how punitive prosecutorial practices have become. It is tragic that a prosecutorial candidate’s position of locking up as few people as possible is described as radical. The recognition that decades of hyper-aggressive policing and punishment have made such a fundamentally humane and moral statement seem not just progressive but “radical,” is made more apparent when you consider the self-described progressive positions staked out by most District Attorney candidates – i.e., declining to prosecute marijuana charges; not requesting bail in most misdemeanors; not seeking the maximum sentence in every case; etc.  

Those positions, however beneficial to the accused, are hardly radical and are espoused by virtually every candidate in the Queens District Attorney race. It therefore behooves those searching for a progressive candidate to try and figure out who might truly be progressive, let alone radical.

With that task in mind, here is a modest list of 13 questions that might reveal the depths of a candidate’s progressive beliefs:

1. The Queens County District Attorney, unlike any other prosecutor in New York City, insists that there will be no plea offer unless the accused waives their statutory right to a prompt grand jury presentation. Will you commit to immediately ending that practice?

2. New York’s highest court ruled that the Queens District Attorney’s pre-arraignment interrogation program was unconstitutional. Will you commit to immediately ending any vestige of that practice and, to guard against any similar kind of abuses, commit to not conducting any interrogations unless and until the accused has been provided with an attorney?

3. A case is currently pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals where it is alleged that the Queens District Attorney had a practice of deliberately insulating prosecutors from their duty to provide the defense with exculpatory evidence. Will you commit to immediately ending that and any similar practices?

4. Recent legislative reforms will require that the prosecution provide the accused with discovery within 15 days of an indictment. Fifteen days is the outermost date. Will you commit to providing discovery within one week? Will you commit to providing the accused with basic police reports at arraignment?

5. New York Civil Rights Law 50-a has been an impediment to access to police personnel records and is the subject of ongoing debate and litigation. Will you agree to publicly support repeal of Section 50-a?

6. New York’s former Chief Judge famously observed that prosecutors wield so much influence on grand juries that they could get them to indict a ham sandwich. Would you agree to replace the grand jury in all cases with preliminary hearings where witnesses testify under oath and subject to cross-examination?

7. In countless trials, the accused is unable to exercise their hallowed constitutional right to testify on their own behalf because the prosecutor will cross-examine them about unrelated prior arrests or convictions. Will you commit to limiting cross-examination of the accused to just the facts and circumstances surrounding the charges on trial? 

8. In order to enhance police transparency and accountability, will you commit to videotaping all interviews with police witnesses and to provide the accused at their first appearance before a judge with a copy of the tape of the initial interview with the arresting officer?  

9. In order to enhance police transparency and accountability, and given the systematic Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection clause violations found in the federal stop-and-frisk litigation, will you commit to immediate pretrial suppression hearings in all possessory offenses so that the arresting officers must testify under oath, in public, and subject to cross-examination about what they did and why they did it?  

10. The typical Criminal Court complaint drafted by the District Attorney is no more than a few sentences and usually provides no facts regarding the legality of search and seizure. In order to enhance police transparency and accountability will you agree to include in the complaint factual details that support the probable cause for search and seizure?

11. One of the reasons for mass incarceration is the length of sentences that have been meted out over the past several decades. New York has almost 10,000 people serving life sentences. Will you agree to publicly support sentencing reforms to eliminate mandatory minimums, to reduce maximums, and to eliminate enhanced sentencing mechanisms?

12. More than 40% of the 50,000 people in New York State prisons are serving indeterminate sentences and will be eligible for parole. Will you agree to only oppose parole if there is clear and convincing evidence that the individual is a current threat to public safety? Will you publicly support the American Law Institute’s revision to the Model Penal Code that urges states to adopt “second look” legislation that provides for a reexamination of a person’s sentence after 15 years regardless of their original sentence or crime of conviction?

13. More and more, whether in the form of community courts, court watch programs, models of participatory defense, or the role of community groups in fashioning remedies to stop-and-frisk policing, those people most impacted by the criminal legal system are demanding input into how they are policed and prosecuted. In what ways will you cede power over decision-making to the communities most affected by prosecution practices?

Most people now recognize that prosecutors were a primary driver of mass incarceration, and some opine that prosecutors are therefore best situated to undo the damage they caused. With limited exceptions, the platforms and promises of self-described progressive prosecutors are hardly profiles in courage. For those who truly want to see prosecutorial reform, it is time to demand more than liberal platitudes.

***
Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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How to Separate District Attorney Candidates All Claiming to be Progressive Sun, 21 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7783-bill-to-create-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission-awaits-cuomo-decision https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7783-bill-to-create-prosecutorial-misconduct-commission-awaits-cuomo-decision gov andrew cuomo electoral college

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Behind the veil of an unproductive state legislative session where, in its aftermath, the focus has been on what did not get done, one significant piece of legislation that made its way through both chambers and toward the governor’s desk is a bill to create a new, independent state commission tasked with investigating prosecutorial misconduct by district attorneys, including misconduct that could lead, and has led, to false convictions. If the controversial bill is signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat running for a third term this year, the commission would be the first of its kind in the nation.

The legislation passed the Republican-led state Senate 45 to 12 and the Democrat-dominated Assembly 98-46, with members of both parties on either side of the bill. The bill has been lauded by public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates, but has been excoriated by prosecutors, an association of which is calling it unconstitutional and threatening a lawsuit.

The commission would consist of three appointees from the state’s Chief Judge, currently Janet DiFiore, two by the Governor, two each by the Assembly Speaker, currently Carl Heastie, and the Senate Majority Leader, currently John Flanagan, and one each from the Assembly Minority Leader, currently Brian Kolb, and the Senate Minority Leader, currently Andrea Stewart-Cousins. According to the bill, the Governor’s appointees would have to consist of one public defender and one prosecutor, while the Chief Judge’s appointees must consist of one appellate judge and two judges from other jurisdictions. The rest of the appointees must be split evenly between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The commission, which would oversee the state’s 62 district attorneys and their subordinates, would be given full subpoena power for prosecutors and witnesses, be able to request relevant documents, and would be able to conduct investigative hearings against prosecutors accused of misconduct. If wrongdoing is demonstrated, the commission can take several actions, such as a censure or even recommending that the prosecutor be removed from their post. The commission’s findings and recommendations would be compiled into an annual report to the Governor, Legislature, and Chief Judge.

False convictions, and subsequent exonerations, have become so commonplace in New York’s criminal justice system that some district attorney offices, such as that in Brooklyn, have set up whole units dedicated entirely to reviewing past convictions. As of December 2017, the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit had requested exonerations for 24 wrongfully-convicted defendants.

“It’s a significant problem,” said Bill Gibney, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Practice Special Litigation Unit. “The last time I looked, I think New York State was up in the top tier of numbers of wrongful convictions that have occurred. And with some regularity, prosecutorial misconduct is in the mix.” It is impossible to fully account for all wrongful convictions. However, the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations placed New York at number four in the country for exonerations in 2017.

The Registry recorded 13 exonerations in New York in 2017, for offenses including fraud, weapons possession or sale, sexual assault, and murder or attempted murder. Eleven of the 13 recorded exonerations involved “official misconduct” by individuals in positions of authority such as police officers or prosecutors.

One of them, Johnny Hincapie, served for 26 years before being exonerated for a 1991 subway killing. Several key witnesses had not been asked to provide testimony in the original case; when allowed to testify in 2015, they stated that Hincapie was not involved. Hincapie further claimed that he was coerced into a confession by a physically abusive detective.

The Registry has, as of June, counted 12 exonerations in New York State in 2018.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brady v. Maryland, established that prosecutors must turn over all potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. And last year, New York’s court system became the first in the country to require that prosecutors turn over all potentially exculpatory evidence to defendants, before trial. Nevertheless, New York’s discovery laws are poorly regarded by advocates and politicians alike; despite the precedents and rules, no timetables for turning over evidence or penalties for failing to do so exist. Discovery reform has repeatedly failed to advance in Albany despite widespread support.

“There have been so many major cases, murder cases, of people staying in jail for years and years and years, and with the availability of DNA evidence now, there’s been a lot of exonerations,” said Senator John DeFrancisco, a retiring Republican who was the bill’s primary sponsor in the Senate, in an interview on WQXR’s The Capitol Pressroom.

“And what happens is, people get exonerated, and in the course of that, when they show by DNA it’s not them, further investigation shows that evidence was withheld by prosecutors that should’ve been turned over by the law,” DeFrancisco told host Susan Arbetter. He noted that taxpayers end up on the hook for an unnecessary jail sentence and remuneration fees, while prosecutors get off scot-free.

“We’ve had the same thing for judges since the ‘70s,” he continued, referring to the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, established through two constitutional amendments in 1976 and 1978, which serves to investigate, reprimand, and/or discipline judges accused of misconduct. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, DeFrancisco noted that judges were “apoplectic” when the commission began, but it has been highly successful.

“After several years, after complaints were brought and it was shown how fair the commission was, right now it's second nature,” he said. “It’s changed the conduct of judges.”

Nevertheless, district attorneys are strongly against the proposed commission. “This legislation is a mistake and quite likely unconstitutional, and I urge the Governor to veto it,” Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, a Democrat, told Gotham Gazette in an emailed statement. “As oversight already exists to address prosecutorial conduct, any attempt by the Legislature to impose additional measures will only tie the hands of prosecutors, and potentially threaten the safety of those we are sworn to protect.”

These existing oversight measures include “grievance committees,” subdivided by appellate division but sometimes with multiple committees per division. These committees investigate claims of misconduct by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, and can lead to censure or professional misconduct charges leveled against attorneys.

But the bill’s advocates say that the grievance committees are not enough. DeFrancisco and Legal Aid both told Gotham Gazette that the committees rarely, if ever, disciplined prosecutors. Legal Aid cited a study, from the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, a criminal justice reform think tank, which found that less than 2 percent of prosecutorial misconduct cases nationwide resulted in punishment. The same study noted 151 cases of misconduct in New York State, found by trial and appellate courts, with only 3 of those cases resulting in sanctions.

DeFrancisco, who has sponsored the bill for several sessions, said that he waited years for the state’s prosecutor association, District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, to provide him evidence of the grievance committees effectively policing prosecutors, but it failed to do so.

The Queens District Attorney’s office directed Gotham Gazette to a letter sent from DA Richard Brown to the New York Law Journal on June 22, in which he stated that both the New York State Commission on Statewide Attorney Discipline, chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and the New York State Justice Task Force found that allegations of “rampant prosecutorial misconduct” were unfounded.

“Despite each of these findings, the legislature has elected to pass legislation that subjects prosecutors, alone among those who practice law, to a duplicative and intrusive process that is not only violative of the state constitution, but will surely cause delay to the progress of ongoing investigations and prosecutions, much to the detriment of all New Yorkers,” Brown wrote. He is also urging Cuomo, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan and former attorney general, to veto the bill.

The district attorneys for the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan did not return requests for comment.

In a separate appearance on Capitol Pressroom, David Soares, the president-elect of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, raised both constitutional and content-based critiques of the legislation.

On constitutionality, the legislation allegedly circumvents a section of the state’s governing document allowing only the Governor, not the Legislature nor an independent commission, to remove district attorneys from office. He noted that the Commission on Judicial Conduct was established through constitutional amendments, not regular legislation -- such amendments must be passed by consecutive sessions of the Legislature, then the voters by popular referendum.

Soares also criticized the legislation as not requiring complainants to provide a sworn affidavit, “under the penalty of perjury,” and that most instances of “misconduct” were actually not intentional.

He added that if the legislation were to be signed by the governor, then DAASNY would sue the state to block its implementation. The governor’s office, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, did not address the potential lawsuit nor signal an intent to sign the bill or not.

“We believe there should be accountability for all officers of the court, and we will absolutely be reviewing this bill,” said Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens.

DeFrancisco told Gotham Gazette that he believes the governor will sign the bill. “I think he will sign it. The governor, I think, understands this history here.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Bill to Create Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission Awaits Cuomo Decision Mon, 02 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Vance Controversy Spotlights Lax Campaign Finance Rules for District Attorneys https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7252-vance-controversies-spotlight-lax-campaign-finance-rules-for-district-attorneys https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7252-vance-controversies-spotlight-lax-campaign-finance-rules-for-district-attorneys cy vance crop manhattan da

Manhattan DA Cy Vance (photo: @ManhattanDA)


Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., was recently dragged into an unflattering spotlight over his decision not to prosecute disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein for a forcible touching incident in 2015 and for dropping a fraud investigation into members of the Trump family in a 2012, while apparently receiving campaign contributions from lawyers associated with both parties.

While it is not illegal - or uncommon - for district attorneys to accept contributions from lawyers in any type of practice, the details of the two cases, including the relevant campaign donations, are drawing newfound scrutiny to the state’s loose campaign finance rules for prosecutors and invite a new strain of age-old questions about whether legal immunity can be bought by the rich and powerful.

District attorneys, through their election campaigns -- which are not bound by New York City’s strict fundraising and spending limits -- can receive tens of thousands of dollars from a single donor, including lawyers, regardless of whether the attorney has business before the office. Government reform advocates, including former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, say there are systemic issues at play and are calling for campaign finance reform, including a serious look at public financing for all state-level officials. Some say district attorney candidates should be subject to the same fundraising restrictions as judicial candidates to prevent real or perceived bias or conflicts of interest.

Currently, candidates for district attorney operate in one of the many largely unseen areas of state campaign finance law and enforcement, with minimal rules and almost no oversight. District attorney campaigns file disclosures through the state Board of Elections, but there is little evidence that those filings are examined closely -- an apparently statewide issue wherein regulators pay scant attention to campaigns for local offices.

Recent reporting from The New Yorker, ProPublica, and WNYC radio, outlined how Trump family attorney Marc Kasowitz -- a longtime donor to Vance’s election campaigns -- met with the district attorney before he shut down an investigation into how Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were marketing a new Trump condominium development, Trump SoHo, despite evidence compiled by his own prosecutors that the siblings may have deliberately misled investors. E-mails described by the three news outlets make clear that the Trumps “were aware they were using inflated figures about how well the condos were selling to lure buyers.”

A $25,000 donation made by Kasowitz in early 2012 was returned by Vance’s campaign prior to his May meeting with the district attorney (“standard practice” when a donor has matters before the prosecutor’s office, Vance told The New Yorker), but records show Kasowitz made an even larger donation, of $31,993, to Vance in January 2013, that less than six months after the case was abandoned (after this reporting, Vance said he would be returning that money, too).

Similarly, a narrow timeline can be traced between payments from two law firms representing Weinstein, made before and after he was let off the hook for allegedly groping an Italian model in his TriBeCa office, despite an audio recording, made in conjunction with the NYPD, of the movie producer apparently admitting to the incident and apologizing. The lawyer who represented Weinstein in the case, Elkan Abramowitz, is a partner in the firm where Vance previously worked and had contributed $26,550 to Vance’s campaign over the years, including $2,100 after the case was dismissed, as first reported by the New York Post. In addition, Abramowitz’s firm, Morvillo, Abramowitz, Grand, Iason, Anello & Bohre, donated $11,500 to Vance’s election fund, according to state campaign finance records.

Another $10,000 contribution came from attorney David Boies -- who has represented Weinstein in past high-profile cases, though none involving Vance -- after the investigation was dropped in April 2015, as first reported by the International Business Times.

Vance maintains that he decided each case based on its merits and denies that donations made by lawyers of his clients influenced his decisions. In the face of intense media scrutiny, he has emphasized that it is common for prosecutors to accept campaign donations from lawyers. “No contribution ever in my seven years as district attorney has ever had any influence on my decision-making in a case,” Vance told reporters last week.

The recent criticism over Vance’s handling of the two investigations has demonstrated how the state’s current campaign finance system can easily lead to situations that sow doubt about the credibility of New York’s top prosecutors. As county-level elected officials, district attorneys across the state, including in New York City, are governed by state law, including in their campaign activities. Therefore, the city’s five district attorneys are not subject to the city’s campaign finance system for municipal offices, which includes much more strict limitations than currently exists in state law, where little exists to limit or enforce district attorney campaign fundraising.

Government reform advocates say these Vance cases highlight the need for public financing of all campaigns, but in particular for prosecutors and judges, who receive the bulk of their campaign contributions from lawyers and legal firms.

“People rely on the legal system to be a fair and for [judges and prosecutors] to follow the law -- not to play favorites,” said Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group. “The campaign finance system creates an inherent conflict of interest. That’s why we’ve always argued for all races -- but certainly district attorneys and judges -- to be publically financed.”

Due to growing concerns over the real or perceived influence of special interests in judicial races since the 1990s, judicial candidates are now bound by fundraising guidelines, dictated by New York State Bar Association and other ethics oversight bodies, and enforced by the Office of Court Administration. However, there are no such rules for district attorneys, of which there are 62, one in each county of the state, and the Office of Court Administration has no jurisdiction over district attorneys, according to a spokesperson for the agency. 

The primary ethics blueprint for prosecutors, published by the New York State District Attorneys Association, titled “The Right Thing: ethical guidelines for prosecutors,” specifies that district attorneys should avoid certain political activities, such as making others aware of their presence at political events, but makes no mention of campaign finance rules. Campaign finance is also absent from a sparse section of the New York State Bar’s “rules of professional conduct” handbook that pertains to “prosecutors and other government lawyers.”

By contrast, the Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook, citing an opinion from the New York State Bar Association, specifies that a judge’s campaign committee “may not knowingly solicit or accept contributions from a party to litigation that is before the judge, nor one employed by, affiliated with, or a member of the immediate family of a party to litigation before the judge.”

Judicial candidates are also instructed to avoid contributions from a party that may “reasonably be expected to come before the candidate if elected,” or one who has come before the candidate “so recently that it manifests an appearance of impropriety.” Furthermore, judicial candidates are prohibited from even looking at who contributed to their campaigns and must leave the room at fundraisers when a plea for contributions is made.

The judicial guidelines were implemented so that judges would conduct themselves in ways that “maintain public confidence in the judiciary,” according to the handbook. It may be reasonable for prosecutors, who like judges are elected and entrusted by the public to uphold the law, to be held to a similar set of standards.

District attorneys in the five boroughs are also not subject to New York City’s strict campaign contribution limits, which set, for example, an individual donation limit of $4,950 per cycle to a mayoral candidate, and much less so for those on the “doing business” list of entities with city business.

According to state regulations, an individual can contribute around $34,000 to a Manhattan district attorney’s campaign (the formula caps donations at the total number of active voters in the candidate's party in the district multiplied by $0.05). There are more than 681,000 active registered Democrats in New York County, also known as Manhattan, as of April 2017. But, due to the state’s porous campaign finance rules, contributors can easily circumvent even these limits, by donating through a company or spouse, or by creating multiple limited liability corporations, each of which it permitted to contribute up to $5,000 to county-level candidates.

A Turning Point
Weinstein’s predatory behavior towards young actresses has frequently been described as an “open secret” in Hollywood circles, but a bombshell New York Times report last week detailed decades of sexual harassment complaints levied against the producer, as well as secret payouts to scuttle potential law enforcement complaints, involving actresses like Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd.

Days later, a piece in The New Yorker detailed further allegations, including several women who said they were raped by Weinstein, and embedded an NYPD recording of the mogul seemingly admitting to the Italian model, Ambra Battilana -- who was wearing a police wire -- that he had groped her breasts the day before. Vance’s office, charged with investigating the forcible touching incident, ultimately declined to prosecute Weinstein. Since the story was published, allegations about the producer have piled up, with numerous high-profile actresses -- including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Beckinsale -- and other lesser-known actresses adding their voices to the chorus women claiming they were victimized by Weinstein.

The public backlash to the reports has been fierce, with many calling for Vance to resign and the National Organization of Women demanding a “full accounting” of his decision in the Weinstein case. A steady stream of New York elected officials have denounced Weinstein, who is a major Democratic donor, and announced that they would return or give to charity donations he made to their election campaigns. And with Donald Trump and his family rising to power, many are questioning whether immunity from criminal charges is at least in part dependent upon campaign donations.

Defendings its decision last week, Vance’s office released a statement that while the behavior alleged in recent reports about Weinstein “shocks the conscience,” at the time, the recording did not provide sufficient evidence to prosecute.

“If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct in 2015, we would have,” said Chief Assistant District Attorney Karen Friedman Agnifilo, in a statement. “After the complaint was made in 2015, the NYPD - without our knowledge or input - arranged a controlled call and meeting between the complainant and Mr. Weinstein...While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent.”

In subsequent days, given the new reports, Vance’s office confirmed it was working with the NYPD to investigate allegations against Weinstein.

Meanwhile, Vance has been cruising unchallenged toward reelection this fall. Yet, over the last four years his campaign has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, with funds coming mostly from lawyers and law firms, and has nearly $1 million left in the bank. In July, he raised $322,832.12, mostly from lawyers, and spent $358,061.43, leaving him with $1,305,989.18 in the bank, according to his filings with the State Board of Elections. Since the Democratic primary in September, he raised $18,400 and spent $399,084.31, leaving him with $925,333.49, according to his 32-day pre-general election filings.

The newfound scrutiny of Vance’s campaign finances has placed him in a sticky situation, one that some say could be avoided with new limits on district attorney campaigns, public funding of campaigns for state-level offices, or both. Vance is also now facing at least two campaigns for write-in challengers to unseat him through the November vote, where only his name will appear on the ballot.

Some, including Mayor Bill de Blasio -- who was recently investigated by Vance’s office himself, with no charges filed -- maintain that it is important to trust the system and that prosecutors are acting in good faith, and lawyers and prosecutors who have interacted with Vance told Gotham Gazette that he has a reputation as a “straight shooter.” However, experts on judicial conduct say that even those with the best intentions may overestimate their own immunity to bias.

“There’s a lot of literature out there on unconscious and unintentional bias with respect to financial conflicts of interest,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The long and the short of it is that people are often poor judges of how they are influenced by financial conflicts of interest, and often take actions that seem unbiased to themselves, but will have the appearance of corruption to outsiders.”

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Donald Trump in March and is known for efforts to weed out corruption on Wall Street and in state government, weighed in on the controversy surrounding Vance on Friday.

“It's time that candidates for local District Attorney just say no to campaign donations from criminal defense lawyers,” Bharara tweeted, later adding that there should only be public financing for district attorney candidates.

While public financing may be ideal, and is perhaps the “cleanest” way to prevent many conflicts, there may also be legal precedent for the passage of state law prohibiting who can contribute to a district attorney’s campaign, according to Horner.

“You’ve got to be careful how you develop a law that restricts donations, because there are First Amendment issues that come up, but I think it can be done,” said Horner, noting about half the states in the country have some restrictions on the ability of lobbyists to make campaign contributions.

“It’s a clumsy process and someone has to enforce it,” he added, noting that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an ethics advisory board that currently only has jurisdiction over lobbyists and state-level officials, could be incorporated through legislation.

News came on Monday morning that Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart plans to introduce a bill to drastically reform how district attorney campaigns are governed in terms of who they can take donations from and what the caps on those donations would be, as reported by The Daily News.

On Wednesday, Vance emphasized to reporters that his fundraising standards were legal, and said that he had a “very sound vetting system.” But he acknowledged, in the wake of the controversies, he would be open to reexamining those practices.

“It obviously calls for an opportunity like this for me to rethink with my assistants how we wish to handle the matter going forward," he said. "So, in answer, it’s absolutely legal, but [campaign donations] should be re-examined, office by office.”

A spokesperson for Vance’s reelection campaign declined to elaborate on these adjustments when Gotham Gazette inquired.

On Sunday, Vance published a Daily News op-ed in which he defended himself and announced that there will be an independent review of how his campaign has handled contributions, leading to recommendations for future operations, in order “to help us radically reduce the appearance of influence of money in our work.” Vance promised higher standards than required, writing, “notwithstanding New York’s lax campaign finance laws and sky-high contribution limits, I’m prepared to dramatically restrict who can donate money to our campaign — including lawyers — and the amounts that our contributors are able to give.”

In the op-ed, Vance said the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School would run the review of his campaign fundraising and larger campaign fundraising practices by district attorneys. The Center is run by Jennifer Rodgers, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who in a Friday interview with Gotham Gazette said she was not familiar with all the details of the situation, but defended Vance’s character and criticized the larger campaign finance system he’s operating within.

“It’s very easy after the fact to second guess whether he made the right decision,” Rodgers said, adding that “reasonable people can differ” on whether certain cases may brought, but that she hadn’t seen anything to make her think Vance did anything inappropriate. “He always struck me as a straight guy,” she said, “and I don’t think that this notion that he’s dirty and is somehow on the payroll is valid.”

Now, it will be up to Rodgers and CAPI to make recommendations to Vance that will undoubtedly reverberate to a much wider audience. As Vance wrote, “I never intended to start a conversation about money in criminal justice. But I see now that it’s long overdue. Campaign finance reform is criminal justice reform, and I have a unique opportunity to push the ball forward.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Vance Controversy Spotlights Lax Campaign Finance Rules for District Attorneys Sun, 15 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Thousands of Low-Profile Cases Could Turn on Police Body Camera Footage https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6879-thousands-of-low-profile-cases-could-turn-on-police-body-camera-footage https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6879-thousands-of-low-profile-cases-could-turn-on-police-body-camera-footage nypdnews twitter 2014 vievu

(photo: @NYPDnews)


In June 2016, the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law co-sponsored a study with the NYPD to assess sentiments regarding police body cameras, part of an effort to influence department policy as body cameras become worn by an increasing number of patrol officers. The NYPD has been gradually outfitting its officers with body cameras, in part as a result of a court order, with an initial rollout of 54 cameras in 2014, and 1,200 more to be added to the force this year. As part of a new contract with the city’s patrol officers union, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in early 2017 that all 23,000 patrol officers would be wearing body cameras by 2019.

In implementing a body camera program, the NYPD must outline the protocols that would guide everything from circumstances under which officers must activate their cameras to the proper method of releasing footage.

The Policing Project survey, which remained open for 40 days, received 25,126 responses from “individuals who identified themselves as living, working, or attending school in New York,” as well as 5,419 police officers. In a study conducted concurrently by the Marron Institute of Urban Management at NYU, police officers answered similar questions and were encouraged to participate by Pat Lynch, the President of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), who posted the questionnaire on the union website within days of its launch.

One of the many themes in the study was the ongoing question of a defense attorney’s ability to access police body camera footage in the cases they handle with clients, who are charged with a crime by a local district attorney. Public defenders, who handle a large percentage of cases brought against poor New Yorkers, are particularly concerned about rules governing the usage of body cameras and access to footage. There were 314,870 arrests made by the NYPD in 2016, most of which were for non-violent crime.

Discovery law -- the process by which defense lawyers are given access to materials by District Attorneys in cases and plea negotiations -- is inconsistently implemented across the five New York City boroughs, according to public defenders. As body cameras become ubiquitous in the NYPD -- by 2019, all members of the PBA will be wearing one -- there is increased pressure from public defenders and advocacy groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bronx Defenders, and the New York City Civil Liberties Union (who all submitted their own responses to the surveys) to develop comprehensive laws surrounding police-worn body cameras.

When Mayor de Blasio and the PBA announced their new contract deal, the mayor said, “this agreement provides the compensation and benefits the world’s finest police department deserves, while outfitting the entire force with body cameras and delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” Transparency is the lynchpin underlying calls for the proliferation of body cameras within the NYPD (and other police departments around the country); but some fear that NYPD policy and district attorney practices will not uphold the rhetoric espoused by the mayor.

While police body cameras are often discussed in the context of major incidents of police brutality, it is the many thousands of lower-profile interactions between officers and members of the public that will make for virtually all of the footage taken by such cameras. Police body cameras will capture hundreds of thousands of low-level arrests each year, as well as circumstances around felonies, contentious and harmonious exchanges between police and the public, and instances where people feel that they are treated wrongly by the police and wind up bringing their own legal action.

Police body cameras are heralded by many, including de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and others, as a key accountability and transparency tool. But, they also open what could be a Pandora’s Box of questions and potential pitfalls. Rules for recording and disclosure are being closely tracked by those who will be directly involved in many of the cases where body camera footage will be a factor, and red flags are being raised.

According to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, “the way prosecutors interpret discovery laws in New York State and criminal procedure law really allows the prosecutor to delay what he or she is revealing, causing many people to plead guilty before potentially vital evidence is disclosed." This can place public defenders in difficult positions – if prosecutor determines that body camera footage isn't relevant to a case, the public defender may never see it.

While key factors in many legal proceedings involving police body cameras will be when the camera is turned on (and off) and what is recorded, it is illegal for prosecutors to withhold footage that could exonerate a defendant.

According to Debora Silberman, senior staff attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, “prosecutors have an obligation under [the] Brady [Bill] that they are required, if there is exculpatory video, they're obligated, [by] ethical and constitutional obligations under the law, to turn that over to us, and to make that known to us.” But this doesn't necessarily mean that a public defender will have access to body camera footage, even if it does exist.

Conti-Cook of Legal Aid said that if there is a recording from a body camera that was not evidence a prosecutor wants to produce in support of their case, either because it exonerated the defendant or in any way undermined police testimony or other evidence, then the way that prosecutors work, the prosecutor will likely withhold that evidence until the day of trial, hoping for a guilty plea before they were forced to disclose.

When contacted for comment, multiple representatives for District Attorney offices disputed this. They claimed that the Supreme Court decision of Brady v Maryland, which established that prosecutors must turn over all exculpatory evidence, meant that body camera footage would have to be given to public defenders, regardless of whether that footage was favorable to a defendant or a police officer and D.A.

Still, some public defenders have expressed doubt that it is so cut and dry and closely followed in all cases.

As things stand now, public defenders are looking forward to the proliferation of body cameras, largely so they can contextualize cases. A problem that defenders often point to is the short amount of time they’re given to prepare a case for a defendant. According to Conti-Cook “We have attorneys in Manhattan who don't learn the names of the complaining witnesses until the day before or the day of trial. And there's no way that you can prepare a case without having that information. So the night before they're always scrambling with coming up with a quick investigation, you prepare for the next day. But it really puts us systematically at a disadvantage when it comes to counselling our clients.”

It remains unclear if body camera footage will help ease this phenomenon by providing more context, or simply be another data point that public defenders need to scramble for in the final hours before a case.

The issue of evidence disclosure, including of body camera footage, is relevant to various cases, those that are tried in court and those settled pretrial. According to Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services, “many of our cases end in a plea bargain, prior to a pretrial hearing, so we don't get the benefit of challenging the constitutionality of the search or the approach of our client...we don't get to challenge whether the police officer's observation were true or accurate, or whether they make sense in the context of the allegation.” If public defenders are able to refer to body camera footage to ascertain the full circumstances surrounding a case, they may have more leverage and even avoid some plea bargains altogether.

One public defender presented a hypothetical situation as an example. A police officer is legally allowed to search a person if the officer believes they witness an exchange of drugs take place. But what if that officer is 50 feet away from the exchange when it happens, and it’s not clear what they were actually capable of seeing at the time? Body camera footage could corroborate or disprove an officer’s account of events.

Even if a search yields the discovery of drugs, Silberman sees how body camera footage could be used on behalf of a defendant. “Very often, when we suspect that there has been an illegal approach of our client, and illegal search of our client, and illegal car stop, a car search, of either the car or the house, we would be challenging the constitutional grounds for the search or the approach,” she said.

Silberman also sees what she thinks can at times be the officer point of view, saying, “I think it can be easy to justify illegal behavior by convincing oneself that taking a gun off the street or taking the drugs off the street was worth the search.”

“[S]o few of our cases get to the stage where we get to challenge their observation,” Silberman added. “Most of our cases plea out. Which means that you're entering a plea, you're taking a misdemeanor or a felony and possibly jail time, or probation. Before you even get to that stage, very often a prosecutor will say to you, ‘look, if I have to go to a hearing, my offer's off the table.’”

There are many more pretrial hearings, when a district attorney offers evidence and a potential plea deal, than trials. “Only when you do a pretrial hearing do you get to challenge the constitutionality of the search or the approach, search through the vehicle, search of the client, search of the house,” Silberman said. “If we had a video of the kinds of observations that were made, it would be a completely different ballgame. But it's so infrequent that we even get to a stage to challenge the officer's testimony or perspective.”

Right now, both district attorneys and public defenders agree that police body cameras will have a positive impact. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said that he “has long supported the use of police body cameras, which increase the civility of interactions with residents, reduce false complaints against officers, and provide potentially vital evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.”

On the question of discovery, Vance's spokesperson said, “Our office will meet our legal obligations to provide this material in discovery, as we do with all evidence. We are confident in our ability to efficiently and effectively utilize and produce body camera evidence.”

Echoing a point made by Vance, de Blasio, and others, Silberman of Brooklyn Defender Services thinks that police officers will be aided by body cameras too, saying that they “benefit public safety and officer safety. Just as much as we're concerned about the truth coming out, so are police officers. Police officers also have to deal with people making accusations of falsehoods, whether they're saying something that's not true, or whether they were being too aggressive. And if an officer is acting in accordance with the law, that is justifying all the actions that he took.”

State Senator Daniel Squadron, who had co-written a letter with Assemblymember Dan Quart and Public Advocate James asking for more transparency from the NYPD, agrees. One detail that concerned Squadron, Quart, and James related to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In their letter to then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, the three elected officials outlined their worry that the cost of filing a FOIL request for body camera footage was “prohibitive” ($36,000, per the example they cited), and the procedure by which the NYPD could redact footage would undermine the ostensible purpose of body cameras: increased transparency.

In response, Bratton wrote that “our working group is proceeding as expeditiously as possible, trying to balance public transparency and individual privacy.” He cited the NYU Policing Project study and closed his letter assuring the three officials that the NYPD was “exploring all options for the use of body-worn cameras by our police officers.” Bratton has since retired from the NYPD and been replaced by Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Senator Squadron said, “Body cameras can protect officers and civilians alike, but it's critical that transparency be a central component,” Squadron added he will “push to ensure that transparency and safeguarding privacy are cornerstones of body camera policies." Squadron didn’t address specific questions about district attorneys turning over body camera footage.

The concurrent NYU/NYPD study did address the way in which the NYPD or district attorneys would disclose body-camera footage in criminal and civil proceedings. In conjunction with the release of the Policing Project survey results, the released NYPD its assessment of the survey and its new draft policy for body-worn cameras. The NYPD rejected some recommendations from the Policing Project and accepted others. “Arresting officers will provide the assigned prosecutor with access to all BWC video related to an arrest utilizing the Body Worn Camera video management system,” the NYPD writes. Notably, the NYPD did not stipulate how the assigned prosecutor should then release the footage to public defenders.

To Nick Malinowski, formerly of Brooklyn Defender Services and now at Vocal-NY, a grassroots organizing group, the new NYPD protocol is not enough. In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Malinowski said, “Body cameras in and of themselves are neither good, nor bad. The way they are used, who has access to the footage, matters. There is not much in the current NYPD plan to suggest it will improve transparency or accountability and certainly the history of the NYPD in this regard does not give us confidence; instead we really should understand this pilot project as an expansion of police power and surveillance.”

In 2015, there were a total of 306,695 dispositions across all five district attorney borough offices, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. When Gotham Gazette contacted the five DA offices, none were able to provide precise data on the number of dispositions in which body camera footage was used as evidence. As the NYPD rolls out its body camera program, that fact is likely to change.

Mayor de Blasio has pledged that body cameras are “delivering the transparency and policing reforms at the center of effective and trusted law enforcement.” A lot will depend on how the cameras are used and what footage is made available to both defendants and their attorneys, and the broader public. Silberman believes that body cameras “really speak to truth and justice. This is really what our adversarial system is all about. They would speak to what actually happened. It would give us a constitutional perspective on the incident at hand, and the incident in question.”

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by Elena Burger, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Thousands of Low-Profile Cases Could Turn on Police Body Camera Footage Tue, 18 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6133-to-eradicate-sex-trafficking-prosecute-the-pimps-and-buyers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/6133-to-eradicate-sex-trafficking-prosecute-the-pimps-and-buyers hersh

Lauren Hersh, the author (at podium), and other activists 


Sarah was 13 years old when she was lured into prostitution by two men from her New York City neighborhood. For the next two years, she was sold to buyers who were eager to purchase her adolescent body. Her pimp required her to meet a quota and when she didn't, she was brutalized.

There were many moments when Sarah tried to leave the life of prostitution. Each time, her exploiter would threaten to harm her or worse, her little sister. Sarah felt helpless and trapped. So, she stayed.

Sarah was bought by men who wore business suits and went home to their wives and children. The money they paid would pass through Sarah's hands and land in her pimp's pocket. While her pimp and the buyers operated with impunity, Sarah was harassed and arrested by police more times than she could count.

For years, New York court dockets were filled with women and girls who were pulled off the street, brought before judges, sent to jail, and then returned back into the hands of their exploiters. This vicious cycle was fueled by laws that failed to adequately protect victims and a public perception that people in prostitution were there of their own free will and should be punished in an effort to "clean up the streets."

In 2013, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created Human Trafficking Intervention Courts after recognizing that the vast majority of women arrested for prostitution were, in fact, victims of trafficking or other forms of exploitation. These courts sought to provide people in prostitution with exit strategies and comprehensive services, instead of jail time and criminal records.

Simultaneously, a widespread movement to change the New York State Human Trafficking Laws was gaining momentum. Survivors and advocates were frustrated that in New York, sex trafficking was still a non-violent felony and people who purchased children for sex were receiving lower penalties than those who committed a purse snatch.

District Attorneys needed better tools to prosecute exploiters. Victims needed better protections. Change was necessary to reflect the growing understanding that in order to eliminate trafficking, it was necessary to hold traffickers and buyers accountable, not people in prostitution.

Albany responded to pleas for progress. In October 2015, Governor Cuomo signed the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act into law, a comprehensive bill that increases accountability for those who exploit, while providing protections for some of society's most marginalized. Last week, survivors around the state cheered as this law went into effect.

The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act can absolutely be a game changer. But, like any law, it makes no difference if it is not enforced. And this is a significant task.

Sarah's experience with our criminal justice system signals a need for change.

Specifically, we need widespread police training not only about the new law, but the complexity of exploitation and best practices for prevention. Police departments must continue to shift perspectives on prostitution.

Government resources must be used to prosecute traffickers and to eliminate the demand for prostitution by going after buyers. It's a simple case of supply and demand: without buyers, there's no profit for the sellers. Successful trafficking prevention must include sex-buyer accountability.

Law enforcement cannot eliminate trafficking alone. Resources must be allocated to heighten community awareness and provide in-depth training for those on the front lines. School teachers, medical professionals, and those working with children in foster care, LGBT youth and other vulnerable populations often meet young victims, but without adequate trafficking training, they may miss critical signs of exploitation.

Today, Sarah* is a lawyer and one of the fiercest anti-trafficking advocates you will ever meet. But she can't do it alone. The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime must be banished from our vernacular. People in prostitution must be seen for what they are: victims of modern-day slavery and sexual violence.

It's incumbent on all of us – including our elected officials at the federal, state and local levels, the judiciary, law enforcement, and everyday citizens – to do what we can to prevent even one young girl from living the hell that Sarah endured.

*Note: Sarah (a pseudonym), is now in her late twenties and still receives threats against her life from her former pimp. Her safety requires full anonymity.

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Lauren Hersh is Director of Anti-Trafficking Policy and Advocacy at the NYC-based Sanctuary for Families, a leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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To Eradicate Sex Trafficking, Prosecute the Pimps and Buyers Mon, 01 Feb 2016 22:17:30 +0000
Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/6005-incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/6005-incoming-das-plan-to-join-thompson-and-vance-warrant-clearing-efforts vance bratton nypdnews

DA Vance with Commissioner Bratton, photo via @NYPDNews

 


 

In an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of 1.3 million open arrest warrants for unanswered summonses for non-violent offenses such as being in a park after dark, having an open container of alcohol, and littering, city district attorneys are holding amnesty events, giving New Yorkers with warrants a chance to clear up the original summons without fear of arrest.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance held such an event in Harlem on Saturday, offering anyone with an open warrant for failing to answer a summons a chance for a hearing before a judge - which often leads to a dismissal and a cleared record.

The event, dubbed “Clean Slate,” is the first of it’s kind in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office, and comes fives months after Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson held his first summons- and summons warrant-clearing event, “Begin Again.” Thompson has since held a second Begin Again event and has a third scheduled for early December. Meanwhile, two new district attorneys - in the Bronx and Staten Island - were elected November 3, and both have told Gotham Gazette they plan to hold similar events once they take office.

While DA-elect Darcel Clark of the Bronx and DA-elect Michael McMahon of Staten Island both intend to offer something similar to Clean Slate and Begin Again, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown does not. A spokesperson for Brown, who just won a seventh four-year term, told Gotham Gazette he has no such plans.

“It is a sad fact that for individuals who have open warrants for minor infractions called summonses, there is a fear that's constant that they will be arrested,” Vance said at a November 17 press conference launching Clean Slate. “Emotionally and psychologically, those weigh down those who hold those outstanding warrants, and [those warrants] have real consequences - they can affect the warrant holder's immigration status; they can hurt an individual's chance of getting a job; or prevent him or her from enlisting in the armed services.”

“If there is an arrest, that years-old case must still come through an already overburdened court system,” Vance noted, saying that he was motivated to host Manhattan’s first summons warrant amnesty event to give “individuals with minor offenses that are outstanding a fresh start, and for efficiency in our courts.”

The success of Thompson’s first Begin Again event, held in June, led him to put together another two summons warrant-clearing events this year, with the next one planned for December 5. On Saturday morning at the event, Vance told assembled members of the media that given the good turnout for his first Clean Slate event, he is optimistic about holding more in the future, and would like to host such events on a quarterly basis.

Hosting Clean Slate and Begin Again events has required the NYPD, judges, clerks, the Office of Court Administration, public defenders, volunteers from the Legal Aid Society, and the community to work together to set up an off-site courtroom for one day. They’ve involved significant awareness and outreach efforts by the DA offices and community partners to spread the word - often on flyers that attempt to make it clear that people with warrants for these “low-level” offenses should not fear arrest at the event.

With so many stakeholders willing to collaborate in order hold an event that “helps the person who has the warrant, helps protect our officers so they’re not put in dangerous positions with people who have warrants, who may try to flee or resist arrest, helps our overburdened court system, and helps to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” as Brooklyn DA Thompson told Gotham Gazette, the question remains: will the city’s three other district attorneys follow suit?

Spokespeople for Clark, of the Bronx, and McMahon, of Staten Island, told Gotham Gazette that each of the newly elected DAs, both Democrats, do indeed plan to hold such events. (All five DAs will be Democrats after Clark and McMahon are sworn in.)

"District Attorney-Elect Michael McMahon has said that he believes programs like Begin Again and Clean Slate have merit and value, particularly in giving individuals and veterans an opportunity to start fresh and clear their names from summons violations for low-level offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash or being in a park after closing, that may impact their ability to get a job or access needed services,” Ashleigh Owens, spokesperson for McMahon, said in a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette.

“As District Attorney, he'll look to evaluate options and secure resources for bringing a similar program to Staten Island," Owens added.

“Once in office, Bronx District Attorney-elect Clark is committed to working to find solutions that will clear backlogged arrest warrants for summonses, which includes potentially holding amnesty events," Ryan Monell, a spokesperson for Clark told Gotham Gazette.

Queens DA Brown currently has no intention of offering any sort of amnesty program in Queens. Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Brown, told Gotham Gazette, “We have no plans to offer an amnesty program at this time, as Queens maintains the lowest failure to appear in court rate in the City.”

“Additionally,” Ryan continued, “any blanket amnesty program would be unfair to those individuals who assume full responsibility for their actions by appearing in court when their cases are scheduled and paying their summonses. Beyond that, individuals can avail themselves of such amnesty programs whenever they become available in other boroughs."

Indeed, the events being held by other DAs are open to anyone with a summons warrant, regardless of where an individual lives or was cited for a violation.

Yet even if four of the city’s district attorneys were to hold amnesty events for summons warrants on a regular basis, it would take decades to significantly reduce the city’s 1.3 million outstanding arrest warrants for summonses. According to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Thompson’s Begin Again initiative has “helped nearly 2,000 New Yorkers and has cleared more than 1,300 outstanding summons warrants,” while hundreds of New Yorkers lined up to clear their records at Vance’s Clean Slate event this Saturday.

Hypothetically, if four DAs each held four amnesty events per year and cleared an average of 650 warrants at each event, a total of 10,400 summons warrants could be cleared each year - not even one percent of 1.3 million.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that in 2014, an average of 985 summons were issued each day in New York City. According to the Mayor’s Office, in 2014, a total of 359,432 summonses were issued citywide - 38 percent of which resulted in an arrest warrant for failure to appear in court.

If roughly 136,584 summons warrants are being added to the million-plus backlog each year, amnesty events alone will never be able to eliminate the tally of summons warrants.

That is not to say that such events aren’t worthwhile, as the participating DAs, public defenders, and others would argue. Many New Yorkers clapped, cheered, and profusely thanked nearby volunteers upon exiting the Soul Saving Station Church on Saturday at Vance’s Clean Slate event. Some walked away with the white slip of paper informing them of their Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal clutched between their hands, staring at it and smiling, while others threw their hands up into the air and shouted “I’m free!” and “Clean Slate, baby!”

What’s more, clearing the backlog of arrest warrants for such minor offenses frees up the NYPD and the courts to devote resources to areas with greater need. “We should free our officers to deal with gun violence, domestic violence, and sexual assault - serious crimes,” Thompson said. “Everyone benefits with a Begin Again program. This is being smart on crime, helping reform the criminal justice system, and working together with the community to show that law enforcement and the community can stand as one.”

Yet it is clear to many that a more comprehensive approach must be taken to deal with the city’s staggering backlog of summons warrants - one which grows daily.

“The root of the problem is overcriminalization for low-level, quality of life offenses,” Council Member Rory Lancman, Chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, told Gotham Gazette. Lancman wants to see some violations made civil, as opposed to criminal. “If I get a ticket for putting my trash out too early, and I forgot to pay it on time, I don’t get arrested. I get a penalty, and I’ll pay my fine,” he said.

When asked whether any reforms to tackle “the root of the problem” were currently underway, Lancman replied, “Not directly. We are pushing to have some of the low-level quality of life offenses processed through the civil justice system, though that would be prospective, not retroactive.”

About 40 percent of New Yorkers who receive a summons fail to appear in court for the date specified on their summons, automatically triggering a warrant for their arrest. There are a number of reasons people may miss their court appearance: immigrants may fear deportation, some may not be able to pay the fines issued to them, some aren’t able to miss work - but more simply than that, many do not understand what is required of them, and don’t know that a warrant will be issued for their arrest if they fail to appear.

A number of reforms have been put in place this year to address this issue. In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Chief Judge of the State of New York, Jonathan Lippman, announced a new initiative, called “Justice Reboot,” to modernize the criminal justice system. Part of the pilot program aims to make the summons process easier to understand and navigate by simplifying the design of the summons form and providing a wider window of time for individuals who have received a summons to appear in court.

“We have taken steps to make summons court more user friendly,” Lancman explained. “Hopefully, by instituting night hours, by allowing people to pay their fines online once they have pled guilty, and by providing people with electronic alerts to let them know about an upcoming court appearance, we will reduce the number of bench warrants issued in the future.”

Even NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has expressed support of amnesty as a means to clear the case backlog. “Warrants never go away. There’s no expiration date,” Bratton said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It would be great to get rid of a lot of that backlog. It’s not to our benefit from a policing standpoint to have all those warrants floating around out there.”

Bratton, however, has not looked kindly upon the City Council’s attempts to address the “root of the problem” by decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses. Yet, Bratton has expressed commitment to what he has called “the peace dividend” approach he is taking, whereby because the city is much safer than it once was, the NYPD can use more discretion. Still, this may mean more summonses rather than arrests, which does not help the summons-warrant problem.

“I think these individual programs that DAs are running are good progress and I’m very supportive of them,” Council Member Lancman said, “but we really need a larger, more macro strategy for dealing with this extraordinary number of arrest warrants.” 

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Incoming DAs Plan to Join Thompson and Vance Warrant-Clearing Efforts Tue, 24 Nov 2015 03:52:49 +0000