Sessions taking wrong approach on crime, Gonzalez charges
Acting DA says harsher sentences not the answer
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ get-tough-on-crime stance could wind up backfiring, according to Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, who called new polices outlined by the country’s top law enforcement official draconian.
“While keeping the people of Brooklyn safe is my top priority, I also know that we are never going to incarcerate ourselves to safety and we are never going to change our communities by only putting people in prison. Public safety does not require us to adhere to an outdated and ineffective ‘tough on crime’ approach,” Gonzalez said in a statement issued June 1.
Gonzalez was reacting to a memo Sessions sent to federal prosecutors ordering them to pursue the toughest possible charges against criminal suspects and to seek strict sentences.
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions wrote in the memo.
The move marked a reversal of an Obama administration policy of easing penalties against nonviolent drug offenders.
But Gonzalez said Sessions has the wrong idea. Instead of throwing people in jail in every instance, law enforcement officials need to be “smart on crime,” he said.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer agreed with Gonzalez. “The very criminal justice policies this administration is now embracing are the same ones that failed a generation of Americans, and the same ones that created an unrelenting cycle of crime and poverty in communities across the United States. If we want to lower crime and reduce recidivism, that cycle needs to be broken permanently,” he said.
Gonzalez and Stringer spoke out on the Sessions memo during an announcement in which the comptroller endorsed the acting district attorney in his election bid.
Gonzalez, who took over when Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson died of cancer last year, is running for his first full term in office. He is facing several challengers in a Democratic Primary on Sept. 12. The candidates include Vincent Gentile, Patricia Gatling, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fleidner, Ann Swern and John Gangemi.
“Eric is someone of not just extraordinary intelligence and incredible competence. His character is of the highest caliber. He’s guided by an unflappable sense of right and wrong,” Stringer said.
“I’m grateful for Comptroller Stringer’s support and the great work he does on behalf of the people of New York every day,” said Gonzalez.
Both men said they were troubled by the attorney general’s approach to crime fighting.
The “get tough” stance, which led to record numbers of people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses in previous years, has been widely discredited, according to Gonzalez, who said it runs counter to the types of policies that have driven down crime in Brooklyn.
“Our experience in Brooklyn shows why Attorney General Sessions’ announcement is so misguided,” said Gonzalez.
He pointed to a policy instituted by Thompson in 2014 in which the Brooklyn DA’s Office stopped prosecuting suspects for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The policy greatly benefitted law enforcement in the borough because it freed up police officers and prosecutors to focus on serious crimes, according to Gonzalez, who wrote and carries out Thompson’s policy.
Get-tough policies often result in a harsh human toll, he said, pointing out that a criminal conviction can be a lifelong impediment when it comes to education, housing and employment.
Trying to solve the drug problem by imposing ever-harsher penalties was a misguided strategy dating back to the 1980’s that led to decades of growing prison populations, rising costs and high recidivism rates, Gonzalez said.
Instead, drug use should be treated primarily as a health issue, Gonzalez said. The current policy of the Brooklyn DA’s Office is to offer suspects the option of treatment and rehabilitation rather than forcing people into the criminal justice system, he said.