The following are excerpts from remarks by Charles J. Hynes, Kings County District Attorney, on receipt of the Cyrus R. Vance award from the Fund for Modern Courts on Dec. 5 at the Yale Club.
I am of course especially grateful to the Fund, to your executive committee and your chair, Victor Kovner, as well as my old friend Dennis Hawkins, your executive director, for this honor which I regard as the highest I ever received. I will always have fond memories of the partnership of effort between the Fund, the Brennan Center, and my office as well as many others to void the convention method of selecting candidates for the New York State Supreme Court. None will forget that great moment when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously affirmed the U.S. district court’s finding that judicial selection by the convention method was unconstitutional. Of course the euphoria was short lived when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the convention system.
But despite that disappointing outcome, some important reform has resulted. For example, the decision of Vito Lopez, the Kings County Democratic leader, to take a fresh look at the convention system. When he succeeded Clarence Norman, Jr., whom I convicted and sent to prison, the first sitting county chairman convicted in 67 years since James Joseph Hines was convicted (incidentally no relation of mine), at that point the Kings County Democratic Party and the judiciary in Brooklyn was in disarray. During a four-year investigation, my office had indicted three justices of the State Supreme Court, more than the number of judges prosecuted in either state or the federal courts in New York’s history. Ultimately, three of the judges were disbarred and two were sent to state prison.
While our challenge to the convention system was wending its way through the federal court, the Brooklyn chairman, in contrast to his jailed predecessor, created a blue ribbon panel led by former New York City schools chancellor and at the time president of St. Francis College, Frank Macchiarola. Members included Howard Glickstein, professor of law and former Dean of Touro Law School; Gerald Lefcourt, a highly respected criminal defense lawyer and Manuel Romero, chair of the New York State grievance committee. The panel issued its findings on Feb. 28, 2007. The Macchiarola panel had heard from New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, Victor Kovner and others. The panel’s principal recommendation was that a screening committee which would include non-lawyers would have sole authority to pass on the qualifications of applicants for the Supreme Court and that no one would be considered if found unqualified.
The Brooklyn Democratic chairman accepted the findings and today the screening panel includes representatives from 11 bar associations. According to members I have spoken with, the chairman will not permit a candidate’s application to proceed unless she or he is found qualified. While it remains an imperfect system given the continued reliance on the judicial convention, the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court gave political leaders carte blanche over the process, at least the Brooklyn Democratic leader has chosen to be guided by a screening panel, and that is in my view a positive sign. Nevertheless, there should be continued dialogue to end control of the convention system, something which remains completely within the authority of the state Legislature.
I would like to spend the remaining few minutes discussing where Brooklyn was in 1990, when it was the fifth most violent place in America per capita, to where in 2002 Money Magazine said it was one of the 10 best places to live in America. It is important to note that we didn’t achieve this dramatic change by the traditional approach of a public prosecutor, but rather by a redesign which had at its very foundation the understanding that the key to increasing public safety is recidivism reduction.
And of course we did it with the help of the New York Police Department and Brooklyn community leaders.
It was clear in 1990 that the fuel driving the engine of violent crime in Brooklyn, then averaging 168,000 felonies a year since the late 1980′s, was drugs and in particular crack cocaine. In 1990 it was estimated that more than 80 percent of those arrested for felonies in Brooklyn were involved in the use and/or the sale of narcotics. Our first initiative was to create the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison or DTAP. DTAP was a recognition that it was both fiscally and morally indefensible to imprison sick drug addicts. In both its early and current design DTAP uses the Rockefeller drug laws as a hammer to encourage addicts to opt for residential drug treatment.
In a five-year study of DTAP by the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse, or CASA, at Columbia University led by former Carter Administration cabinet member Joseph A. Califano Jr., there were two stunning findings: DTAP cost less than one-half the cost of incarceration and 87 percent of our graduates did not return to drugs or crime. It is a demonstrable example of recidivism reduction and its positive impact on public safety. Today, 23 of this state’s 62 District Attorneys employ DTAP as a crime reduction strategy.
I am proud of the some 30 prevention and alternatives to prosecution and incarceration programs we have created since 1990 – including Red Hook Community Court, our faith-based program called Youth and Congregation in Partnership, which has a recidivism rate of 11 percent for otherwise prison bound juveniles, and our Family Justice Center, a one-stop location for victims of domestic violence and their surviving children. And of course I am especially grateful to Mayor Michael Bloomberg who dedicated the center to Regina Katherine Drew, my mother and herself a victim of Domestic Violence. But these programs aside, I will conclude by briefly discussing what I believe is our flagship for reform of the criminal justice system which significantly enhances public safety and that is re-entry.
Nearly nine years ago, my first assistant, Patricia Gatling, currently Mr. Bloomberg’s human rights commission chair, suggested a problem and a solution which I believe one day will drive crime rates down throughout the country to levels not seen since the 30′s or 40′s. Ms. Gatling discovered that of the 4,000 formerly incarcerated returning to Brooklyn each year, six of 10 go back to prison within three years. Her plan was if we could connect these returnees with volunteer agencies which provide transitional employment and wrap-around services, perhaps we could reduce recidivism.
Initially, we began with 200 participants, expanded to 600, and today we provide services to 1,200. Last February at the New York City Bar Association Bruce Western of Harvard released his findings for our re-entry program which we call Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together or ComALERT. He determined that ComALERT reduces the recidivism of our clients by more than half.
This substantive reduction in re-offending for a population who committed serious felonies which sent them to prison in the first place is already positively impacting public safety levels for the people of Brooklyn. I am very pleased that at my urging, funding has been identified for both DTAP and ComALERT in the Second Chance Act passed last year and signed into law by President George Bush.
When funding bills support Second Chance initiatives such as DTAP and ComALERT, I believe that criminal justice policies for many prosecutors across the country will shift significantly toward prevention and alternatives to prosecution and incarceration. To the extent that I and my office will have a hand in enhancing public safety across the country through reduced recidivism, that will make this day and this Vance Tribute all the more meaningful.