Charles Hynes leaves behind complex but progressive legacy in legal community
In the final years of his career, former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’ legacy took a hit in public. He was bashed for how he handled the Hasidic community and his campaign funds. Public opinion especially began to turn on him after his replacement, the late DA Ken Thompson, began to overturn more than 20 wrongful convictions that happened under Hynes’ tenure.
His legacy is more complex than that, though, and among the legal community many will remember him as a progressive DA who helped turn Brooklyn around.
“From the day he took office until the day he left, violent crime dropped 80 percent,” said defense attorney Arthur Aidala, who worked for Hynes in the mid 1990s. “That’s an insanely staggering number.
“He was the head law enforcement officer working with the NYPD that helped clean up the area around the Barclays Center,” Aidala continued. “Bushwick is a great example of a neighborhood where you couldn’t pay people to walk those streets in the 80s and 90s, but today tourists from middle America walk those streets every day and pay a lot of money to stay in that area. He had a big hand in that.”
Hon. Barry Kamins, the former administrative judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term, admitted to the Eagle that Hynes’ public legacy may be mixed, but that members of the legal community do still consider him to be very progressive.
“Joe Hynes was one of the most progressive prosecutors in the state — if not the country,” said Judge Kamins. “20 years ago he was talking about drug courts and reentry programs at a time when many prosecutors were not even thinking in those terms. He will always be remembered as a progressive thinker, and the other prosecutors will reap the benefit of his forward thinking.”
Without Hynes’ support, it’s unlikely that the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison Program, which has been copied all over the entire county, could have been a reality. Similarly, Hynes was instrumental in creating programs to help victims of domestic violence, including the Family Justice Center, and he had programs that helped the formerly incarcerated readapt to society.
Hynes’ legacy will likely always go hand-in-hand with the wrongful convictions. Even defense attorney Ron Kuby, though, who has worked to overturn a few of the wrongful convictions that Hynes is ultimately responsible for, explained that the realities of the situations were complex.
“There was a time when Joe Hynes was New York’s hero for bridging the seemingly impossible gap between the black and white communities [after the Howard Beach incident],” Kuby said. “It’s also important to remember that while Hynes didn’t correct a number of problems within his office, he wasn’t responsible for creating them. [Detective Louis] Scarcella was hired by Liz Holzman, and the institutional brutality and lying from NYPD began on Holtzman’s watch.
“During a time of mass incarceration where DA’s Offices were busy packing the prisons with as many people as they could, Hynes was the one who tried to temper some of that in his office,” Kuby continued. “Hynes especially, I think, was one of the first DAs to see the horrors of mass incarceration and was one of the first to seriously propose alternatives to incarceration.”
Even Lonnie Soury, the founder of Families of the Wrongfully Convicted, wouldn’t go so far as to blast Hynes himself on the day of his death. Instead, he focused the blame on the office. In fact, he said that Hynes’ death could make it more difficult for others who may have been wrongfully convicted to be let out of prison.
“With all those wrongfully convicted seeking their day in court, Hynes’ death removes a potential witness they might have used in exposing wrongdoing in the Brooklyn DA’s office,” Soury said.
When it comes to the legal community, many will remember Hynes as the person who gave them their start. The Brooklyn DA’s Office is considered by many to be a great place for young lawyers to start their careers, and Aidala said that Hynes had a direct hand in creating that environment.
“He knew when to back off and allow us to be attorneys, but he also had supervisors always watching to make sure that we knew the right things to do and the wrong things to avoid,” Aidala said. “He also never was the person to deliver the bad news. If he called you into his office it was for a good thing — and he let his chief assistant be the one to deliver the bad news.
“That created an atmosphere where you weren’t afraid to talk to him, and for many of us he became like a family member: Uncle Joe. He created that environment and taught us how to be lawyers with the highest ethical standards.”
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