Eric Gonzalez: An Innovative Approach to Safety and Justice
"I believe that public safety and reducing incarceration are not incompatible. Given the lifelong consequences of a criminal record, I believe it is my moral obligation to find ways to send fewer people to jail and prison, as long as it can be done without compromising the safety of our communities. Ken Thompson and I began, and I have continued, a number of initiatives that have resulted in Brooklyn sending fewer people to jail and prison in the past few years, while violent crime in Brooklyn continues to decline and our communities are safer than they have been in years."
Under DA Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana possession cases.
Eric Gonzalez was the architect of the policy that ended prosecution of most low-level marijuana possession cases in Brooklyn. While whites, Blacks and Latinos use marijuana at roughly the same rates, the overwhelming number of people being arrested for it - over 90% - were young people of color. The majority of these individuals had no other criminal record, and for many young people, a marijuana arrest became a "gateway" into the criminal justice system. This change in policy was not popular in some quarters. But rather than let this injustice continue, DA Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez chose to act alone to make the justice system in Brooklyn fairer. New York City soon followed suit, changing the way police process such cases.
From 2013 to 2016, the number of people arrested in Brooklyn for simple marijuana possession dropped by about 70%, and fewer than 100 people were convicted of that charge last year.
Under DA Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office created a Convictions Review Unit that has since become a model for the country.
One of Ken Thompson's first acts as District Attorney in 2014 was to create a Convictions Review Unit to reopen cases in which there was a possibility that the defendant had been wrongfully convicted. He put Eric Gonzalez in charge of setting up the unit, which to date has overturned 22 wrongful convictions, with another 100 cases under review.
Under DA Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office allowed people with outstanding summons warrants to come and have them cleared up by a court based in the community.
There are some 1.5 million outstanding summons warrants in the city's five boroughs — generated for failure to pay a ticket for very minor infractions like drinking in public, or being in a park after it closes. But, however minor the offense, if someone is caught with an outstanding warrant, he or she is arrested on the spot. And for immigrants, an outstanding warrant can lead to deportation.
Ken Thompson and Eric Gonzalez devised a program called Begin Again, where people with outstanding summons warrants can come to a location in their community - several churches in Brooklyn have offered their sanctuaries for Begin Again - and get these warrants cleared and the underlying cases resolved.
At Begin Again events, Legal Aid lawyers are on hand to give legal advice, including about matters unrelated to the warrant, and staff from government and community-based social services programs like job training and ESL are on hand to offer assistance to members of the community. So far several thousand people have been able to clear up their old warrants and get their cases dismissed, and trust between the community and law enforcement has been strengthened as a result. The Begin Again program is now being emulated in other boroughs.
In April 2017, Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced a new policy to prevent immigrants from being unfairly deported due to a conviction for a low-level offense.
Brooklyn is one of the most diverse counties in the nation—over one-third of Brooklyn residents are immigrants, and half of all Brooklyn households speak a language other than English. Our current national administration has created a climate of fear in immigrant families and communities, and the Brooklyn DA's office is doing its part to make sure that our immigrant neighbors do not live in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Eric Gonzalez created an Immigration Unit - the first in the city - to handle cases involving immigrants, and he has hired full-time immigration attorneys to make sure that low-level cases don't result in disproportionate punishment, such as deportations or other negative immigration consequences.
The main goal of this policy is to help immigrants, but it will make all of us safer by ensuring that immigrants who are witnesses to crimes or victims of crimes, such as domestic violence, will feel safe coming forward.
In April 2017, Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced a new policy to reduce the number of people in jail for misdemeanors because they can't afford bail.
Three-quarters of people held in jails in New York City are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime, and yet they are incarcerated because they cannot afford bail - 90% of those people are Black or Latino.
Eric Gonzalez has introduced a policy in the Brooklyn DA's office where prosecutors will not seek bail in most misdemeanor cases. The policy is subject to certain exceptions, such as when the defendant is on parole or has a recent history of violence, but in the vast majority of misdemeanor cases, the DA's Office will consent to a person's release while their case is pending.
In the summer of 2016 Eric Gonzalez created an innovative Young Adult Court.
The Young Adult Court that Eric Gonzalez developed in Brooklyn is one of only two such courts in the country (the other is in San Francisco). This court handles cases of young people up to the age of 24, who are too old to be treated as juveniles, but who research in brain science tells us are like juveniles in some important ways. These young people need to be held accountable for their actions, but not treated so severely in the criminal justice system that they enter a cycle of criminal justice involvement and their lives are ruined as a result of bad decisions made early on.
The Young Adult Court provides diversion, services and, most importantly, attention to these young people, and the office stays engaged with them even after their cases are resolved if they so choose. Eric believes that if we can make a difference in the lives of young people early on, we can both reduce the number of young people in our criminal justice system and make our communities safer.