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Candidates for Brooklyn DA discuss bail reform, other topics at forum

June 6, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn's seven candidates for district attorney (from left): Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling, Ama Dwimoh, John Gangemi, Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, Anne Swern and Councilmember Vincent Gentile. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
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The seven candidates for Brooklyn district attorney came together in a forum for the first time in front of a packed crowd at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights on Monday night.

The candidates included Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, Anne Swern, Ama Dwimoh, John Gangemi, Councilmember Vincent Gentile, Patricia Gatling and Marc Fliedner. The event was sponsored by the Brooklyn Reform Coalition, which is made up of 14 different Democratic reform groups, and was moderated by Esmeralda Simmons and Susan Herman.

The format of the event allowed each candidate to present an opening and closing statement and the bulk of the two hours was taken up by questions from the audience. With a reform-minded crowd, that kept the topic on reforms of the criminal justice system.

The topic of decriminalizing low-level, nonviolent crimes, as well as bail reform, which will likely be necessary if the city has a chance to close Rikers Island, were the first topics brought up.

Gonzalez spoke about programs that the DA’s Office is already doing, such as Begin Again, which eliminates old summonses, and called for treating the opioid crisis as a health crisis.

Gatling said that DAs need to use prosecutorial discretion when it comes to prosecuting low-level crimes, Fliedner said that he would not go after “survival crimes” that punish people in poverty. Dwimoh said that locking people up for low-level crimes was a thing of the past. Only Gangemi veered off the theme when he said that DAs must follow the law.

“What should be done, what I would do, is go out and ask Senator Schumer and other people in power to give us some sort of direction to how we should handle these laws and not just arbitrarily say it’s a low-level law,” Gangemi said. “I’ve never heard of a low-level law … These laws should be defined before the DA, not only here in Brooklyn, but throughout the U.S., before they start reducing laws.”

On bail reform, four candidates — Dwimoh, Gatling, Swern and Fliedner — all said they would eliminate cash-bail for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Fliedner said that there is no correlation between cash bail and people coming back to court; Gatling pointed to practices that have been successful in Washington, D.C., like the use of ankle monitors in some cases; and Swern said the use of a community bail fund should be expanded.

“Obviously we want people coming back to court,” Swern said. “We want justice, we want it to be efficient and timely, but it doesn’t mean that you have to put up money to get that. We’ve proven it with the community bail fund, we’ve proven it with supervised release, we have to expand on that.”

Gonzalez wouldn’t commit to eliminating cash bail, but pointed out that he has already begun some form of bail reform and said that in Brooklyn there is currently “presumptive release.” He also added that his office is working with supervised release.

“We’re never going to say that on any case we’re not going to ask for bail,” Gonzalez said. “That’s irresponsible. On individual cases, we’ll make a decision. There are sex crimes and other non-violent crimes that we need to pay attention to. We’ll make the recommendations that are appropriate for individual cases. We’re going to ask for bail, but reasonable bail, and when appropriate, we won’t ask for bail.”

Gentile painted himself as an outsider, particularly on the topic of wrongful convictions when he blasted nearly everyone on the stage.

“Ken Thompson is gone now,” Gentile said. “Our reform minded outsider is gone. You have to ask yourself — do we risk resurrecting those bad old days of the Joe Hynes era where there were 22 wrongful convictions? Those who were in management then are sitting behind me, other than Mr. Gangemi, during those Charles Hynes years when those convictions were being processed.”

Gonzalez defended his record by pointing out that Thompson picked him to help set up and run the Conviction Review Unit that turned over the wrongful convictions. He also said that problems were systemic and many have already been corrected.

In their closing statements, each candidate got a final chance to explain their campaign. Swern pointed to her work with Brooklyn Defender Services and the treatment courts, Gonzalez spoke about 2016 being an all-time low year for crime in the borough and some of many progressive programs that he’s already undertaken, Gentile discussed how he could use his political ties and the platform of the DA to undertake real progressive change.

Gangemi closed by talking about his 48 years as an attorney, Gatling highlighted her work with re-entry programs, Fliedner said that he would be ten times more progressive than Thompson was and talked about Thompson’s decision not to seek jail time for NYPD Officer Peter Liang as the reason he walked about from the DA’s Office, and Dwimoh talked about her work with children and questioned why certain communities felt that they couldn’t trust the DA’s Office.

“There are communities that just don’t trust (the DA’s Office),” Dwimoh said. “Do you blame them? I don’t. I left the DA’s Office because the values of trust truth and integrity are gone. I plan on going back with a mandate of the people.”


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