Remarks as Delivered for Charles B. Rangel Systemic Racism and Social Justice Summit
Good afternoon. It’s my honor to join you today for the Charles B. Rangel Systemic Racism and Social Justice Summit.
Former Congressman Rangel – or Charlie as many of you know him, or the Chairman – is a champion of civil and human rights whose example inspires all of us who strive to build a more just and equitable world. I’m thrilled to participate in the namesake event during Harlem Week. Harlem holds a very special place in my heart, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is proud to have a permanent presence here through our community office on West 125thStreet and our two Youth Opportunity Hubs in West and East Harlem.
I want to express my gratitude first to the New York State NAACP for inviting me to share how our Office is combatting systemic racism, in our justice system and in our city. I would also like to extend my deepest appreciation to the following individuals: the Hon. Milton Tingling, Dr. Vincent Boudreaux, Lloyd Williams, Fred Dixon, Kevin Matthews, Bill Rudin and the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation.
Harlem native son James Baldwin was never one to shy away from speaking the truth about racism and police violence against Black Americans. He once famously remarked, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Whether it wanted to or not, America had no choice this summer but to face a ruinous legacy of racism, white supremacy, and, in certain instances, police brutality. We watched in horror, as a nation, as George Floyd repeatedly pleaded with the police officer kneeling on his neck, saying “I can’t breathe,” more than twenty times, but to no avail. And in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder – and the killings of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and numerous other Black men and women at the hands of police – sustained protests swept from coast to coast, in turn, producing police budget cuts, bans on police chokeholds, and greater access to police misconduct records.
As this nationwide push for police reform accelerated, members of my Office, myself included, took a long, hard look in the criminal justice mirror, re-evaluating decades-old policies and practices, and embracing new strategies in the pursuit of justice and community safety. We, as prosecutors, must do more than merely acknowledge in words that Black Lives Matter; we must continue to demonstrate affirmatively through our policies that Black people, who have been harmed most by police violence and mass incarceration, do indeed matter.
In my remaining time, I will touch upon three significant ways our Office has fought, is fighting, and will continue to fight systemic racism.
As Manhattan District Attorney, I have the power and responsibility to set policies that minimize unnecessary interactions with the criminal justice system, that reduce racial disparities and collateral consequences in low-level prosecutions, and that enable the Office and court system to preserve resources for the prosecution of serious crimes.
This past summer, in early June, our Office made the decision not to prosecute peaceful protest offenses, offenses such as Unlawful Assembly and Disorderly Conduct.
As New Yorkers peacefully assembled day after day, I spoke with many of my colleagues within our Office who raised legitimate concerns about the state of criminal justice and prosecution in America, and shared ideas about the role our Office could and should play in achieving necessary, fundamental changes.
What became clear from those conversations – and from the demonstrations themselves – was that prosecuting these low-level offenses and then resolving them with a dismissal sometimes six months later, as we had always done, in many cases did nothing to serve the interest of justice. Instead, this policy threatened to undermine the critical bonds between law enforcement and the communities we serve at an especially fraught time in our city’s history. Here too, Baldwin’s words apply to prosecutors: We must be willing to face how our decisions impact the lives of people involved in the justice system, for better or for worse, and change them as needed.
Our Office has a moral imperative to enact public policies which assure all New Yorkers that in our justice system and our society, Black lives matter and police violence is a crime. As such, our decision not to prosecute the low-level offenses of Unlawful Assembly and Disorderly Conduct this summer marked the latest example of our commitment to this ideal in practice.
Since I became Manhattan District Attorney in 2010, our Office has ended the routine prosecution of marijuana smoking and possession, subway fare evasion, unlicensed vending, and other low-level offenses – a series of policy changes that helped us cut prosecutions by our Office up to 58 percent over the past decade. Our decisions to stop prosecuting these offenses, which visited unjust and disproportionate impacts upon our Black community and communities of color, represents a tangible example of our belief that Black lives matter. So does our Office’s prosecution of dozens of uniformed officers for official misconduct over the same period of time.
For far too long, our society and the justice system paid lip service to the notion of equal justice for all while separate and unequal concepts of justice permeated our justice system. It’s my hope that this summer’s reckoning with our nation’s present and past racial trauma is moving us closer to a realization of this equal justice – actual equal justice – for the first time.
To be sure, criminal justice reform requires a radical re-imagining of how we, in law enforcement, serve allmembers of our community. District attorneys, like me, have a duty to identify and reject those policies that exacerbate the multi-generational harm caused by mass incarceration while serving little to no public safety purpose. And even still, the lasting success of criminal justice reform, true reform, requires more than just profound changes in how prosecutors view and carry out their role in society. It requires more than just banning police chokeholds, making police misconduct reports transparent, and ending qualified immunity.
To achieve long-term, transformative change in our criminal justice system, we also need to see substantial community reinvestment that closes the chasm between police budgets and social service expenditures. And cities who are moving to divest from police budgets, such as our very own New York City, must be willing to embrace a different vision for this reinvestment – namely, one that directs the bulk of these funds to grassroots organizations based in our communities of color severely harmed by police violence and unnecessary incarceration.
Now let me explain how community reinvestment fits into our Office’s efforts to combat systemic racism.
In 2016, my Office launched our Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII), in partnership with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, using $250 million forfeited in our aggressive investigations against major foreign banks. At the time, our office consciously decided not to direct these funds toward traditional law enforcement asset forfeiture expenditures, such as tanks, assault weapons, and high-tech surveillance tools that contributed to the militarization of local police and disproportionately harm Black communities. Instead, we believed – and still believe – that community reinvestment provided the best opportunity to build healthier communities, and in turn, reduce both crime and justice-system involvement.
The Criminal Justice Investment Initiative, or CJII, provides financial backing to 50 community-grounded organizations doing innovative work that supports youth, families, crime survivors, and reentering New Yorkers. We are proud to fund five youth opportunity hubs across Manhattan, including the Living Redemption Hub in Central Harlem and the Union Settlement Hub in East Harlem. This summer, Living Redemption has served as a food distribution site for thousands of New Yorkers in need during the covid-19 crisis. In addition, we fund programs that provide healthcare services for New Yorkers reentering from prison, initiatives devoted to serving LGBTQ+ survivors of crime, and trauma-informed services for survivors of violence in our communities of color that historically lacked these vital resources.
These investments – not just our prosecutions – help make New York a safer and more just place.
By necessity, much of our work confronting systemic racism is outward looking. We listen to and collaborate closely with the communities that we serve to bring about necessary changes. But, this summer’s deep racial trauma and lingering societal unrest made it clear to me that we must also do more to accelerate reform by surfacing fresh public policy ideas from within our Office, to better serve the people of Manhattan.
For this reason, we created an Equity and Social Justice Advisory Board, a board to give our Office’s large, diverse, legal and non-legal staff a more direct way to make policy recommendations to me and my executive team. It’s a board that looks like New York City, with people from different neighborhoods, different roles in the office, different ages and different experiences living in or working alongside communities of color, to achieve justice for crime survivors and fairness for the accused. Nothing can be changed until it is faced, and this is just one way we’re facing it. I’m excited to draw from this diverse pool of talent and experience as we do our part, in our time, to move our justice system and our society forward.
Chairman Rangel, I want to close by thanking you so much for your extraordinary career in public service. Like many other lawyers, I have looked up to you and your career, in trying to fashion a way to balance the important needs in our communities to have public safety and to have fairness in our justice system. Those are the two guiding principles, which guided you in your career, and which I’ve sought to emulate to guide me in my own. It’s been an honor to work with you. Happy Birthday, congratulations on your enormous success. Congratulations to the Harlem Chamber and thank you to the NAACP for inviting me to participate in this special event for an extraordinary man.