Brooklyn Boro

DA candidates agree Rikers Island should be closed, disagree on how

July 28, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
While the mayoral candidates debate whether Rikers should be open or closed, the Brooklyn DA candidates all agree that it should be closed, but can’t agree on how. AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

While Mayor Bill de Blasio and Republican challenger Nicole Malliotakis fight over de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island, the candidates for district attorney in Brooklyn, including Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, all support closing the island jail and have plans to help.

In order for Rikers Island to be closed, members of former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice Reform have argued that the most important step is to shrink the population from an average daily population of more than 10,000 inmates to something in the 5,000-6,000 range.

With roughly three-quarters of that prison population in Rikers being held on bail, one of the most effective tools that a potential DA would bring to the effort would be bail reform. Gonzalez, along with his challengers Anne Swern, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling and Councilmember Vincent Gentile, have plans.

“In Brooklyn, I’ve already committed and established reform in our bail policies,” Gonzalez said during a recent candidate forum in Brooklyn Heights. “I’ve trained the assistants on how to think about bail, when to ask for bail. In our criminal court cases there is presumptive release.”

While Gonzalez has certain taken steps toward training assistant district attorneys (ADAs) to change their mindset and to recognize cases where bail isn’t necessary. He has maintained the need for an ADA’s discretion and has argued against one-size-fits-all policies.

This has given ammunition to his critics — at a recent debate challenger Fliedner blasted Gonzalez for asking for $1,000 bail on a recent turnstile-jumping case (Gonzalez has promised to stop prosecuting turnstile jumpers).

“When $500 is asked for bail because a homeless person steals cheese, and the ADA responds, ‘Well it was expensive cheese,’ we will never close Rikers Island,” Swern said.

Many of the candidates, including Fliedner, Dwimoh, Gatling and Swern, have all spoke against cash bail on misdemeanor cases. In its place, those candidates, along with Gentile and Gonzalez, have suggested expansion of pretrial services designed to remind people of their court dates, and perhaps even providing MetroCards.

“I support no cash bail,” Gatling said, who has suggested the use of ankle monitors. “If you look at what’s going on in Washington, D.C. [which has expanded the use of pretrial services], they have a much higher crime rate than we do and have had no cash bail for years and it has been met with a lot of success.”

Gentile has pushed the idea of having the judges able to review a person’s financial status before determining how to set bail.

“Certainly when it comes to bail reform — one aspect I would support and change the law on would be to require the judges to have the financial status of the defendant available to them before bail is set,” Gentile said. “That’s not in the law now, but I will work to make sure that’s in the law.”

Gonzalez has advocated for a change in the law so that judges can look beyond flight risk and include their history of violence when setting bail.

Fliedner and Gatling have perhaps gone the farthest in recommending putting social workers right in police precincts in order to divert some of the population away from the DA’s Office entirely.

“They’re not going to go through the system so there is no chance they are going to go to Rikers,” Fliedner said. “That’s step one: Realistic charging, which is still a systemic problem.”

How cases are processed from the very first step has come under close examination.

Gonzalez said that he has made an effort to divert people into treatment programs including the Young Adult Court, Drug Treatment Court and the Mental Health Court. The problem, according to his opponents, is that he supposedly has the most inexperienced ADAs in the office determining who goes to treatment court and who goes to criminal court.

“You have to have seasoned prosecutors evaluating these cases because that’s what starts this whole pipeline into mass incarceration,” Dwimoh said. “In truth, in that first spot, that’s where they put the junior, brand new lawyers who don’t know because they don’t have that experience.”

The problem-solving courts are, of course, an area of expertise for Swern, who helped to create and implement a number of the local treatment courts. She often advocates for expanded use of these solutions and discovery reform, forcing ADAs to turn over exculpatory evidence that might help a defendant.

Another popular punching bag for the candidates are broken windows policies that many of them see as targeting minorities and the poor. Swern has even suggested that she would hire a statistician to be better able to detect when certain policies are coming down harder on a certain segments of the population.

While the mayoral candidates do not agree on Rikers, Brooklyn’s DA candidates all seem to be on the same page that it should be closed. Even with the recent breakout on the island, the Brooklyn Eagle reached out to the candidates and none seemed ready to abandon their ideological positions.

Gonzalez has already made an effort to reduce the amount of people headed to Rikers Island, and would like to see more gains. The rest see him as the status quo and perhaps not going far enough on his policies.