Testimony before City Council Public Safety Committee: FY22 Budget & Oversight Hearings


March 22, 2021

Good afternoon Chair Adams and members of the Committee on Public Safety. Thank you for the invitation to speak today about my Office’s Fiscal Year 2022 Preliminary Budget.

Over the past eleven years, I am proud to have had the opportunity to appear before the City Council on numerous occasions to discuss my Office’s contributions to public safety in Manhattan and New York City. The critical support we receive each year from the City Council and the Mayor’s Office has helped us implement a wide range of criminal justice reforms over the years and to become digital innovators.

One way that innovation is manifesting itself is through the introduction of data dashboards on our website. For the first time, key metrics, such as the volume and types of cases that we screened and their outcomes, are available to the public in a way that they never have been before, along with demographic characteristics of people coming into contact with the system. For several years, my Office has been working on compiling this data and displaying it in a way that can be easily accessed, understood, and manipulated by the public, and we were proud to finally be able to release it last week. As I have testified on previous occasions, I share the Council’s goal of increasing transparency and accountability among law enforcement.

This past year, more than any other in recent memory, has shined a light on the failures of society on social justice, criminal justice, and combating racism. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that have always been present in our society and its effects have been disproportionately felt by communities of color. Late last year, my Office formalized this through an Anti-Racism Statement, which allowed us to memorialize our values and expectations as we strive to move justice forward and eradicate systemic racism in the criminal justice system. It states:

Black racism and casteism has been embedded for centuries in the very fabric of our society – and, in particular, our justice system. The brutal murder of George Floyd – as well as the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and numerous other Black men and women – shocked our consciences, broke our hearts, and made it clear to us that change – real change – to our justice system cannot wait.  Moving justice forward requires that we proclaim the undeniable truth in word and deed that Black lives matter.

To undo racism, we must consistently identify it, to dismantle it.

The statement, which can be read in full on the manhattanda.org website, was developed in consultation with my Office’s Equity and Social Justice (ESJ) Advisory Board, which is believed to be the first of its kind in a U.S. prosecutor’s office. The ESJ Board was formed in September with legal and professional staff throughout the office. I rely on the Board’s expertise for policy recommendations and guidance, among other things. Its critical contributions are more important than ever following the murder of George Floyd last year, and as our City faces a rise in hate crimes during the pandemic, particularly those targeting Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans.

My Office analyzes every case involving hate or bias-motivated speech or assaults, and those that do meet the legal criteria are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. To combat the rise in bias-motivated crimes, my Office’s Hate Crimes and Community Partnerships Units have participated in numerous virtual forums presented by the NYPD and local community boards; we are planning a legal education (CLE) workshop in late April for ADAs throughout the state, in conjunction with other city DA’s offices; and we will be taking part in a forum with other agencies tomorrow on this topic. We also have a meeting scheduled with the Mayor’s Office to Prevent Hate Crimes to coordinate our awareness and prevention efforts for all hate crimes.

Another category of crime that we’re seeing a troubling rise in are shootings. In Manhattan, there have been 41 shooting victims so far this year,[1] compared to 32 shooting victims at this point last year. To put that in context, last year’s 32 shooting victims represented a 74% increase from the same time period in 2019, which saw 19 shooting victims. Overall, 2020 saw an 89% increase in shooting victims, from 139 shooting victims in 2019 to 263 shooting victims in 2020.  So far this year, there have been 38 documented shooting incidents, a 52% raise from this point last year. Homicides are relatively stable, in that there have been 13 so far this year and there were 14 over the same period last year, but even one homicide is one too many. My Office has always taken a hard line when it comes to prosecuting gun crimes and gun traffickers, but we are not going to prosecute our way out of the gun violence epidemic.

We saw the sickening confluence of these two crime trends – crimes committed against Asian people and gun violence – in last week’s horrific mass shootings in the Atlanta area of eight people, including six Asian women. Stronger national gun laws could have prevented these murders by a man targeting women, specifically Asian women, at their workplace. We know that firearms cross state lines. Even though New York has strong gun laws, as a country, we are only as strong as the gun laws in our weakest state.

In 2014, I co-founded Prosecutors Against Gun Violence (PAGV), a non-partisan coalition of 46 prosecutors serving over 60 million people in 24 states. We are dedicated to finding legislative and policy solutions to this public health crisis. I am thankful to the DAs joining me at this hearing for being active members. Earlier this year, PAGV sent a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris outlining 30 ways the White House and congress can make our cities safer. Turning the focus locally, we have used the court-imposed slowdown related to COVID-19 to assign more of Manhattan’s unsolved shootings to lawyers than ever before. At one point, there were around 85 assigned investigations of 2020 shootings without an arrest.

This rise in shootings is extremely troubling and we are working with all of our law enforcement partners to address it. This coming Saturday, March 27th, we’ll be holding a gun buyback with the NYPD at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in West Harlem. New Yorkers who turn in operable handguns and assault rifles will receive a $200 pre-paid card.

Another alarming trend I would like to draw attention to is the rise in subway pushings. In Manhattan last year, there were 11 such incidents, defined here as a person being forcibly shoved onto a subway track, in spite of dramatically reduced ridership during the pandemic. So far this year, there have been six pushings in 2021, putting Manhattan on pace for between 27 and 28 pushings this entire year. In contrast, there were five pushings in 2019 and six in 2018. I am not prepared to offer explanations for this staggering increase, but I do hope that increased ridership on the subways as we emerge from the pandemic will serve as somewhat of a deterrent.

Earlier, you heard me mention the pandemic’s effect on racial disparities. The pandemic has also created havoc in our court system. There are approximately 3,500 felony cases awaiting indictment in Manhattan, many of them serious. To address this backlog, we have proactively reviewed virtually every non-violent felony case involving defendants without significant or recent violent felony records, which amounts to approximately two-thirds of the backlog. We’ve made offers prior to indictment on around 700 or so of those cases. For months, we were without grand juries, and for months after that, we have operated with limited capacity grand juries. To keep the justice system moving forward in the absence of our grand juries, we held 298 preliminary hearings during the pandemic; to put that number into context, we probably handled fewer than a dozen preliminary hearings in the five years preceding the pandemic.

Amidst the backlog caused by the lack of grand juries and total absence of trial juries, our assistants have been diligently working to meet their electronic discovery burden. The discovery reforms that took effect in 2020 have made the need for physical documentation production more necessary than ever before. In order to comply with the unprecedented evidentiary demands, since the fall, our office has compiled well over 2,000 electronic discovery packages on average each month. In order to successfully meet these needs, we ask that the City fully fund the positions that were only partially funded in the November 2019 budget.

Because the success of the State’s 2019 criminal justice reforms hinge on New Yorkers being connected with vital services, there are two programs that my Office has self-funded with forfeiture proceeds to date, but will not be able to for much longer: Project Reset and Manhattan HOPE. Funding for two of Project Reset’s three Manhattan vendors expires in August, and funding for the third expires in 2022. My office does not have the resources to provide an extension. We are proud that the Council has supported Project Reset’s expansion to Brooklyn and the Bronx and are now seeking support to continue the program in all five boroughs.

Based on the success of Project Reset and modeled after the pilot in Staten Island, our Office launched Manhattan HOPE in partnership with the NYPD and Alliance for Positive Change in September 2018. Between January 2019 and December 2020, 190 people enrolled in HOPE, 150 of whom have completed the program and had their cases dismissed or declined to be prosecuted. In addition to potential jail bed savings, Manhattan HOPE yields savings in court and police resources. My Office requests $625,000 annually starting in FY21 to continue this critical program going forward.

Up until this point, we’ve been able to use case-generated revenue to support innovation, but this is not a stable funding source or a long-term solution for addressing baseline salary needs. Furthermore, criminal justice reform is crucial to helping the City achieve its goal of closing Rikers Island in under a decade, but we require additional City Tax Levy funding to support our efforts. Specifically, my Office requests an additional $12 million in personal services funding (otherwise known as salaries) to sustain critical activities that have been self-funded by our office since 2010. Without additional baseline funding support in the future, we will eventually need to drastically cut back on core prosecutorial staffing.

Eleven years ago, the people of Manhattan granted me the opportunity to return to the extraordinary office where I began my legal career. It has been my great privilege to represent the People of New York County in delivering justice, keeping New Yorkers safe, and leaving behind a fairer system than the one we inherited. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today, and thank you for the continued support of my Office.

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[1] Data compiled using CompStat and DANY statistics as of 3/14/21.