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Acting DA Gonzalez meets Brooklyn elite

Gonzalez Offers Vision for Reform of Mass Incarceration

March 29, 2017 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez addresses the audience with his vision for the DA’s Office. Eagle photos by Andy Katz
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“A lot of people say they will continue. I’m a bit different,” Acting King’s County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez explained to the select group of Brooklynites at the home of Pace University Law School Dean David Yassky, who had gathered for the opportunity to meet the man fate had selected to fill the late Ken Thompson’s role as Brooklyn’s chief prosecutor. Gonzalez, born in Brooklyn and raised on the tough streets of East New York, plans to remove “acting” from his title after November’s election, where he faces likely challenges from other former DA staff including Marc Fleidner, who rose to prominence after winning a conviction against NYPD rookie Peter Liang in the death of Akai Gurley, and a former ADA under Charles Hynes, Anne Swern.

“I was there from day one,” Gonzalez went on to say, in reference to his predecessor’s tenure. “Ken Thompson had the grand vision of what justice should be. I’m continuing his legacy, and I’m also building my own legacy.”

Gonzalez has spent his entire professional career in the King’s County DA’s Office, starting in 1995 as an ADA before moving to several of the office’s bureaus, including Sex Crimes, Special Victims, Domestic Violence and the Green Zone, the last of which he ran as executive assistant district attorney.

In 2014, newly elected DA Thompson promoted Gonzalez to the position of counsel to the district attorney, where he expedited many of Thompson’s reforms, including the creation of the Conviction Review Unit and the policy of no longer filing charges in cases of marijuana possession. Also in 2014, Gonzalez became the first Latino (his family is from Puerto Rico) promoted to the position of chief executive district attorney.

“My priority, of course,” Gonzalez explained to the small group, “is to keep us safe.” He went on to outline a process during which a young person, age 16-24, brought into the system first encounters his or he defense attorney: “Then the second person they see is a social worker. The social worker sits down with them to try to figure out why they committed the offense they committed.”

Gonzalez proposed an array of services including mental health and drug treatment, which, if successfully completed, would lead to charges being dismissed.

“I believe I’m keeping you all safe this way,” he concluded. “If we want to solve the problem of mass incarceration, we need to offer alternatives.”

Although politics on a national level might suggest the American public hasn’t lost its zeal to incarcerate as many fellow citizens as possible, locally, in U.S. cities and counties, it’s a different story. Spurred in part by popular movements such as Stop Mass Incarcerations Network and Black Lives Matter, elected officials, judges and even prosecutors have shown a growing willingness to seek alternatives to long prison sentences, especially for first-time and non-violent offenders.

The evening’s host, Dean Yassky, had written an opinion piece in The New York Times one year earlier that concluded: “Nor can we continue our extraordinary reliance on incarceration. The next evolution in criminal justice policy must be to reform our correctional system, and we must start by restoring rehabilitation as a core goal.”

Circulating around the room was a copy of Fordham University Law Professor John Pfaff’s book “Locked In”, the thesis of which is that it is prosecutors, rather than the war on drugs or legislators seeking easy “law & order” votes, that is responsible for the immensity of America’s prison complex. Cases that might previously have been charged as misdemeanors are now filed as felonies, even in first-time and non-violent offenses, leading naturally to longer prison sentences instead of fines or weekends in the county jail.

Given the manifest sympathy for a serious overhaul of the nation’s reliance on incarceration among the night’s audience, any prosecutor working in a city where “broken windows” remains official policy might have found himself in the hot seat. But Gonzalez seemed to win over most of the people on hand.

“He’s a seasoned prosecutor being District Attorney,” Kieran Beers, chief analyst for ACAMS, said on his way out. “Someone with a real track record might be just what we need now.”


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