Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"The System Is The Punishment"


This morning, Crain's New York hosted a breakfast featuring Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.  It was a surprisingly combative forum, featuring tough Q and A from two Crain's editors and an emotional interruption from a woman whose daughter was killed in a traffic incident. 

Although Vance's speech began with a focus on cyber crime, he quickly moved to a discussion of race, police, and the current unrest in New York.  He talked about his experience as a junior attorney in criminal court and his realization that the vast majority of defendants were men of color.  According to Vance, this early experience led him to commission a study by the Vera Institute of Justice examining racial disparities and prosecutorial discretion in Manhattan.

Moving to policing, Vance said that he believed that "broken windows is never going away" because "communities want quality-of-life enforcement."  He also said that policing in New York City should look different in 2015 than it did in 2000 -- "more focused and more targeted."

Vance acknowledged that there was a real need to "restore trust" in the justice system and to rethink the response to misdemeanor offenses in particular.  In all too many cases, "the system is the punishment," admitted Vance.

Turning to solutions, the district attorney highlighted the work THAT is office has done to create a pilot youth diversion program in Harlem that will help teens apprehended for minor offenses avoid formal criminal prosecution.

As it happens, this is a program that we have had a role in helping to develop, in concert with the Manhattan DA's Office, the New York Police Department, the defense bar, and others.  The idea is simple: in lieu of going to court, participants will be linked to youth court, individual counseling and other alternative programming that we will provide out of the Harlem Community Justice Center.  (We will do something similar in Brownsville, in partnership with Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson.)

These pilots, which will get underway next month, are purposefully small, but if they are successful, they have the potential to grow significantly -- incorporating more serious cases, older participants, and different neighborhoods.   More to come as these experiments get going...