Prison break: DA lays out plan to end trend of excessive incarceration in boro

Prison break: DA lays out plan to end trend of excessive incarceration in boro
District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office

He wants to raise the bar.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez on Monday unveiled his long-awaited plan to reform criminal prosecution in Kings County. The so-called Justice 2020 initiative aims to divert people away from the criminal-justice system by pushing prosecutors to avoid excessive incarceration — a trend the district attorney admitted to promoting himself in his two-plus-decade prosecutorial career.

“I’ve put a lot of people in jail, in prison, I’m not afraid to do that when it’s necessary. But I’ve also learned the lesson, in time, that many of the people I’ve put in jail did not need to be there,” Gonzalez said while announcing the plan during a press conference at his office in America’s Downtown.

The district attorney conceived of the 17-point initiative, whose terms he hopes to implement before the end of 2020, with help from a committee of more than 60 members, who included criminal-justice reform advocates, union reps, heads of local do-good groups, academics, cops, and community leaders.

In order to promote alternatives to incarceration, Gonzalez said he will direct some of his office’s resources toward treating the underlying causes of specific incidents, such as rapes and hate crimes, each of which in 2018 spiked by 22 and five percent in Kings County, according to police statistics. And he already began some of that work, including efforts to vacate dozens of low-level weed convictions last year, as well as the creation of a dedicated hate-crimes bureau in his office, along with another unit dedicated to keeping law-enforcement accountable.

“Often, less is more, often times prison does not equal public safety,” the top prosecutor said. “We’re going to make criminal convictions and incarcerations a last resort, and when we do seek it, we’re going to try to minimize excessive sanctions whenever possible.”

When asked if relying less on incarceration would promote criminal activity, Gonzalez argued that the current mindset of locking every perpetrator up is not necessarily a deterrent, and comes at a high cost to taxpayers.

“We want people to be accountable for the crimes they commit. It’s just that sending someone to jail is the most expensive and least effective way that we now know how to do this work,” he said.

The Justice 2020 plan also calls for more community engagement within the criminal-justice system, proposing the formation of so-called neighborhood-safety councils and new partnerships with local civic groups, both of which will survey residents about how they want justice to be served.

Creating these groups will help the district attorney’s office sooner identify the driving factors behind some crimes, and potentially allow law-enforcement officials to intervene before a bad deed is committed, according to Gonzalez.

“My wife is a teacher, and I’ve heard from many of her friends that teachers could tell you the five percent of students that they deal with, who they understand are at great risk. And there’s unfortunately nothing that can be done in those cases until they act out and commit crimes,” the top prosecutor said.

A press-conference attendee fired back that such community monitoring could easily devolve into over-surveilled neighborhoods and predictive policing, but Gonzalez countered that his team will tow that fine line by heavily communicating with cops and the local liaisons his office puts in place.

“We’ll work with our Police Department, we’ll use data, to understand who may be drivers of crime, or who is most at risk for committing serious offenses,” he said. “But we’re also going to work with our community leaders, stakeholders, clergy, and the other people who know the young people in their communities that need help before they go down the path, you know the wrong way.”

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.