Brooklyn Boro

Softer parole policy pushed by Brooklyn DA

April 17, 2019 Rob Abruzzese and Noah Goldberg
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced the creation of a dedicated Hate Crimes Bureau on Tuesday in a response to the growing number of hate crimes in the borough over the past two years. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

A new policy announced today by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office could improve the chances for many incarcerated people to receive parole.

DA Eric Gonzalez unveiled the creation of a Post-Conviction Justice Bureau Wednesday, which will include a Parole and Clemency Unit, a Sealing Unit and the already established Conviction Review unit.

The new Parole Unit will recommend release for defendants who pleaded guilty to crimes and served the minimum of their sentences.

The Post-Conviction Justice Bureau — the first of its kind in the nation, according to Gonzalez — is part of his Justice 2020 criminal justice reform platform, which seeks to move away from an over-reliance on incarceration.

“Our obligation to do justice and to strengthen community trust in the criminal justice system does not end when a conviction becomes final,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez believes that prosecutors have reflexively opposed parole for too long. As a young prosecutor, he had to write letters at the end of trials to oppose the future release of defendants who would not be up for parole for many years, according to an article published Wednesday by THE CITY and The Marshall Project.

“By taking a hard look at what can only be described as failed practices relating to parole in New York State and giving ex-convicts the opportunity to move on in a productive way, he is again demonstrating the type of leadership in criminal justice reform for which Brooklyn has become famous across the country,” said Michael Farkas, a former assistant district attorney who now works in criminal defense.

Justin Bonus, who represents incarcerated defendants, said Gonzalez’s initiative looks good on paper, but he does not trust how the DA’s office will implement it.

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“Our office has presented them with a case that meets some of their criteria: Ernest Taylor. Taylor is in his 60s and was convicted of burglarizing an abandoned building. He was sentenced to 25 to life and has been incarcerated since 2004. The DA’s office has known about this case for months and done nothing,” Bonus said.

Taylor, however, did not take a plea and went to trial. “He had no choice. Why would you take 25 to life?” Bonus said.

The Parole and Clemency Unit will be led by Paul Burns, the executive assistant district attorney for court operations. The unit will take its position on parole on a case-by-case basis, but the default will be recommendation of parole at the first opportunity for people who pleaded guilty to crimes.

When people under 23 are sentenced to an indeterminate life sentence, the unit will give “special considerations” to their cases to see if they have matured enough for release.

Gonzalez created the new Sealing Unit to help “encourage and facilitate” applications to seal convictions under a New York State law passed in 2017. The unit will help spread the word in Brooklyn, so more people know they are eligible to apply to have their cases sealed.

The DA’s Conviction Review Unit, established under former Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, has overturned 25 convictions since 2014. There were 33 conviction integrity units across the country in 2017, according to a study by the National Registry of Exonerations.

Gonzalez is also concerned with what happens after defendants are granted parole. “The reality is that approximately one-third of new admissions to New York prisons are due to technical parole violations, and the post-release supervision system has ballooned in our state far beyond its original purpose,” Gonzalez told POLITICO in February.

Gonzalez supports the Less Is More Act, a bill in Albany this session that seeks to put fewer parolees back in prison for minor violations of their parole terms.

Justice Jack Weinstein has consistently ruled against supervised release for parolees that he feels is too punitive. Within the past year, Justice Weinstein, who sits on the bench in the Eastern District of New York, ruled that social use of alcohol and even marijuana should be permissible during periods of supervised release as it is “a burden to the probability of rehabilitation.”

Former president of the Kings County Criminal Bar, Michael Cibella, lauded Gonzalez’s new Parole Unit.

“Those previously convicted should not be forgotten by today’s reforms,” Cibella said.

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