Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark presides over a meeting of bureau chiefs on Aug 1.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark presides over a meeting of bureau chiefs on Aug 1. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

For the Bronx criminal justice system, change is coming as new District Attorney Darcel Clark begins to implement her ideas, but observers said the hard part will be making sure they take root.

Clark, who took office at the beginning of this year, ran for election pledging to restructure the way the office deals with cases, as well as to form new bureaus to scrutinize old convictions and focus on cases generated from the city’s most notorious jail.

After more than seven months on the job, she is beginning to deliver on those promises.

“I set a timetable for what I wanted to accomplish in the first year and we’re pretty much on track,” said Clark in interview at her office in the South Bronx.

Clark’s reform efforts are in the nascent stage but, armed with a funding boost from the city that she has pledged to use to hire 160 new staff and modernize the office, her plans are on track.

Clark, a former Bronx Supreme Court judge, succeeds longtime DA Robert Johnson, who was first elected in 1988 and held the job for about 27 years before stepping down to seek election to the Bronx Supreme Court.

Clark said her top priorities for the office were addressing the backlog of criminal cases in the Bronx, which is the largest of the five boroughs, and changing the way the office deals with cases arising from Rikers Island, the second largest jail in the United States.

She is working to hire the lawyers she needs to fully implement a “vertical prosecution” model, wherein prosecutors are assigned cases and continue working with them from arraignment to adjudication, which Clark says will help to reduce the case backlog.

About 65 new attorneys are needed to fully implement the vertical model and 50 are set to start next month.

“We have a lot of hiring to do,” said Joseph Dawson, himself a former acting Bronx Supreme Court justice whom Clark tapped to serve as chief assistant DA and general counsel after she took office.

As for Rikers, the bureau assigned to handle cases from the jail complex will have about 40 total staff and, in the coming weeks, a physical presence on the island. There, her attorneys can collect evidence and conduct interviews on-site, which she says could bring a net cost-savings to the city.

“It’s a responsibility I take very seriously,” Clark said of the jail complex.

While Rikers and speeding up the flow of cases top Clark’s list of priorities, they are jusr a few of a long list of changes she has planned.

She has established a civil litigation bureau and a prosecution integrity unit to review old convictions.

Clark has also rolled out a new unit that will be tasked with considering complaints filed against her assistant DAs and making recommendations on possible courses of action, including referring them to the Grievance Committee. But the bureau still needs to be staffed, and her office has yet to determine how much personnel it needs.

For the Bronx’s defense bar, Clark’s proposed reforms are encouraging, but some say it may be too early to judge if her plans will change the way her office does business.

“I do see a change,” said Murray Richman, a veteran criminal defense attorney in the Bronx who has been in practice for more than 50 years. “I know there’s an intent, but it’s just the beginning.”

Giving Back

Growing up in the Bronx’s Soundview projects, Clark, who is now 54, said she knew she always wanted to be a lawyer, even in the face of obstacles. One came in the form of a high-school guidance counselor who told her to think about being a secretary instead of pursuing a career in law.

“Which made me want to do it more,” she said.

Bronx D.A. Darcel Clark

Clark completed her graduate work at Boston College and, after obtaining her J.D. from Howard University School of Law, she went to work for the Bronx DA’s office in 1986.

“I wanted to give back to my community and I thought a great way would be to become a prosecutor here,” she said.

During her time with the office, she supervised its Narcotics Bureau and later served as deputy chief of its Criminal Court bureau.

In 1999, Clark was appointed as a Criminal Court judge and became an acting state Supreme Court justice in 2004. In 2006, Clark was elected to the Bronx Supreme Court. She was appointed to the Appellate Division, First Department in 2012.

In September 2015, Johnson, who was the longest serving DA in the city, announced he would step down and seek election to the bench. He had been set to run for re-election with the backing of the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties, but said he was looking for a change and denied that political pressure had led him to seek out the new role.

The borough’s Democratic Party endorsed Johnson’s candidacy for judge and picked Clark as its replacement candidate for DA.

Pledging to bring change to the office, Clark trounced Republican Robert Siano, a solo practitioner, for the seat, earning 28,157 votes compared with 4,639 for Siano.

Clark’s husband is a longtime homicide detective with the New York City Police Department, which she said makes her home something like a real-life episode of “Law & Order.”

Compared with her time on the bench, serving as a district attorney has a much busier schedule, she said. She now makes frequent public appearances, routinely meets with community organizations and is on call for her office 24 hours a day.

“I believe in helping people and I believe in improving the quality of life of the people around me,” Clark said.

Problems of Justice

In the years before Clark was elected, the backlog of cases in the Bronx courts was growing larger and delays were frequent, which prompted court officials to take steps such as bringing in a special team of judges to handle the oldest cases.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed this year by The Bronx Defenders against state officials alleging that the delays in Bronx Criminal Court is infringing upon their clients’ constitutional rights, there were 2,378 misdemeanor cases at the beginning of this year that had been pending for at least one year and 538 that had been pending for more than two years.

Some criticized Johnson’s office for contributing to the delays, specifically through excessive adjournments requested by ADAs who were not prepared to try cases, and for having the lowest conviction rate of the city’s five DAs.

According to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the Bronx DA’s conviction rate for felony defendants was the lowest in the city and its percentage of acquittals was the highest.

As of mid-July, the office had a 56 percent year-to-date conviction rate, which would be an improvement of about nine percentage points over the rate for 2015 overall, but still remains the lowest in the city.

But a DA’s conviction rate should not be the “end all, be all” of assessing their performance, said Bennett Capers, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who teaches courses on criminal law and is a member of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.

He said that other factors, such as a DA’s relationship with the community she serves and building trust through “the cases she doesn’t bring” and “taking a stand for justice” should be considered when sizing up how well she is doing her job.

Additionally, Capers said, Bronx residents have generally had more contact with police than people who live in other parts of the city, which can make it difficult for prosecutors to win over juries.

“You can only get convictions based on the community you serve,” Capers said.

And while many prosecutors tout their conviction rates as indicators of how well they run their offices when seeking re-election, he said, a high conviction rate may not be the best way win over some Bronx voters.

“I’m not sure how much of a big seller that would be in the Bronx,” Capers said.

Promises of Change

Earlier this year, Clark successfully made her case to the New York City Council for $11.5 million in additional funding for her office to help her make good on her campaign promises, which brought her total budget to about $70 million for the current fiscal year.

The largest portion of the new funding, or $3.8 million, is being used to implement the vertical prosecution model, which she said could help reduce the backlog.

Clark said the new model should encourage the various bureaus in her office to take more ownership over the cases their ADAs are working on, thus increasing the standard of review.

“It’s a second set of eyes and a third set of eyes looking at the same cases again to make sure we’re doing them right,” Clark said. Additionally, she said, implementing the new model would likely cut down on requests for adjournment by ADAs, which she said was caused in part by the old “horizontal” model in which the same case was passed off to a different ADA numerous times.

She is also in the process of building her Rikers Island prosecution bureau, which will be tasked with working cases from what Clark calls the “worst” neighborhood in her jurisdiction. She is using $1.8 million of the new funding to establish the bureau and said it should have office space ready by next month.

Clark’s office is also in talks with the Office of Court Administration and the city government regarding her proposal for the court system to staff a court part on Rikers Island that would be tasked with hearing motion practice on cases generated from the jail, which Clark says would eliminate the need to transport inmates to the Bronx for court until their cases are ready for trial.

Clark is in the process of building a professional responsibility bureau, which will include an ethics committee that will investigate ethics complaints filed against ADAs, a litigation training unit to provide continuing legal education and a best practices committee to review CLE curriculum.

Earlier this year, Clark spoke out against the proposal before the state Legislature to create a commission for disciplining prosecutors for misconduct, which would have been modeled after the Commission on Judicial Conduct and which is roundly opposed by New York’s district attorneys.

But following the failure of the proposal, Clark said her office decided to put an internal mechanism in place similar to what was being proposed in the legislation to signal to the public that complaints would not just be “swept under the rug.”

“I can’t have someone work for me who is going to operate above the law and unethically,” Clark said. “I will not tolerate that.”

While Clark needed to wait several months before receiving the additional funding she needed to fuel some of her major initiatives, she did not wait long after her inauguration to begin making changes .

Shortly after taking office, Clark began making external hires to fill top-level positions in her office, including Jean Walsh, who was working as deputy superintendent of banks for the New York State Department of Financial Services, to serve as chief of the Investigations Division, which oversees the Rikers Island and public integrity units.

She also named Deanna Logan, who had been working as assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction’s trials litigation division, to head the Rikers Island bureau; and Wanda Perez-Maldonado to head the public integrity unit, which will prosecute cases involving corruption by elected officials.

Clark and her bureau chiefs also began reviewing some of its oldest cases to determine if they should be taken to trial or cleared from the office’s plate through some other means. As of Aug. 8, some 2,000 cases have been reviewed, of which about 800 have been taken to trial or disposed through pleas or dismissal.

She also formed a conviction integrity unit that, like the unit within Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson’s Office of the same name, reviews cases in which there are credible claims that a past defendant was wrongfully convicted.

“I’m not afraid to review the work that I do,” Clark said.

So far, Clark has consented to the release of Richard Rosario, who spent 20 years in jail for a murder he says he did not commit because he was in Florida at the time. But Clark did not immediately dismiss the charges when she consented to the release in March, saying she needed time to reinvestigate the case.

Rosario appeared before a judge in June to have the charges dropped, but in an unexpected move, Rosario told the judge that he wants the case to remain open for more investigation in hopes that he is fully exonerated.

The case will remain open until Sept. 30.

Positive Reception

Clark’s proposals have attracted support from elected leaders in the borough and members of the defense bar.

Alice Fontier, managing director The Bronx Defenders’ criminal defense practice, said in an email that addressing court delays and “systemic inefficiency” in the Bronx is “critical.”

“When people have to wait years to get their basic right to trial realized, their lives are destabilized, the collateral consequences of having an open case can be vast, and the time and expense of returning to court overwhelming,” Fontier said. Clark’s vertical prosecution model is a “critical first step” to addressing the backlog.

Corey Sokoler, president of the Bronx County Bar Association and a criminal defense attorney who worked for the Bronx DA before entering private practice almost 30 years ago, said Clark’s vertical prosecution plan would allow members of the defense bar to negotiate depositions with ADAs who have spent time with cases and can make “informed decisions.”

This could lead to quicker adjudication of cases, Sokoler said, which could help to clear up backlogs in the Bronx courts.

“We’ll be able to see real-time decisions being made in the courtroom,” Sokoler said.

Samuel Braverman, a veteran criminal defense attorney who is a partner at Fasulo Braverman & DiMaggio, said that he also supports the vertical prosecution model, which he said would prevent the problem of information getting lost as cases are handed off from ADA to ADA.

“It’s much better for cases generally,” he said.

Delays in cases may be beneficial for some defendants, he said, but not for those who are waiting in jail to go to trial or those who cannot afford to lose their jobs or support systems as delays drag on.

In the Bronx, the poorest county in the state, Braverman said, defendants tend to fall in the latter category.

As for Clark, Braverman said it appears that she is trying to increase the accountability of her office, which he supports.

“If she is committed to transparency and honesty in prosecution, I’m fully in favor of every change she can make,” he said.

For the Bronx criminal justice system, change is coming as new District Attorney Darcel Clark begins to implement her ideas, but observers said the hard part will be making sure they take root.

Clark, who took office at the beginning of this year, ran for election pledging to restructure the way the office deals with cases, as well as to form new bureaus to scrutinize old convictions and focus on cases generated from the city’s most notorious jail.

After more than seven months on the job, she is beginning to deliver on those promises.

“I set a timetable for what I wanted to accomplish in the first year and we’re pretty much on track,” said Clark in interview at her office in the South Bronx.

Clark’s reform efforts are in the nascent stage but, armed with a funding boost from the city that she has pledged to use to hire 160 new staff and modernize the office, her plans are on track.

Clark, a former Bronx Supreme Court judge, succeeds longtime DA Robert Johnson , who was first elected in 1988 and held the job for about 27 years before stepping down to seek election to the Bronx Supreme Court.

Clark said her top priorities for the office were addressing the backlog of criminal cases in the Bronx, which is the largest of the five boroughs, and changing the way the office deals with cases arising from Rikers Island, the second largest jail in the United States.

She is working to hire the lawyers she needs to fully implement a “vertical prosecution” model, wherein prosecutors are assigned cases and continue working with them from arraignment to adjudication, which Clark says will help to reduce the case backlog.

About 65 new attorneys are needed to fully implement the vertical model and 50 are set to start next month.

“We have a lot of hiring to do,” said Joseph Dawson, himself a former acting Bronx Supreme Court justice whom Clark tapped to serve as chief assistant DA and general counsel after she took office.

As for Rikers, the bureau assigned to handle cases from the jail complex will have about 40 total staff and, in the coming weeks, a physical presence on the island. There, her attorneys can collect evidence and conduct interviews on-site, which she says could bring a net cost-savings to the city.

“It’s a responsibility I take very seriously,” Clark said of the jail complex.

While Rikers and speeding up the flow of cases top Clark’s list of priorities, they are jusr a few of a long list of changes she has planned.

She has established a civil litigation bureau and a prosecution integrity unit to review old convictions.

Clark has also rolled out a new unit that will be tasked with considering complaints filed against her assistant DAs and making recommendations on possible courses of action, including referring them to the Grievance Committee. But the bureau still needs to be staffed, and her office has yet to determine how much personnel it needs.

For the Bronx’s defense bar, Clark’s proposed reforms are encouraging, but some say it may be too early to judge if her plans will change the way her office does business.

“I do see a change,” said Murray Richman, a veteran criminal defense attorney in the Bronx who has been in practice for more than 50 years. “I know there’s an intent, but it’s just the beginning.”

Giving Back

Growing up in the Bronx’s Soundview projects, Clark, who is now 54, said she knew she always wanted to be a lawyer, even in the face of obstacles. One came in the form of a high-school guidance counselor who told her to think about being a secretary instead of pursuing a career in law.

“Which made me want to do it more,” she said.

Bronx D.A. Darcel Clark

Clark completed her graduate work at Boston College and, after obtaining her J.D. from Howard University School of Law , she went to work for the Bronx DA’s office in 1986.

“I wanted to give back to my community and I thought a great way would be to become a prosecutor here,” she said.

During her time with the office, she supervised its Narcotics Bureau and later served as deputy chief of its Criminal Court bureau.

In 1999, Clark was appointed as a Criminal Court judge and became an acting state Supreme Court justice in 2004. In 2006, Clark was elected to the Bronx Supreme Court. She was appointed to the Appellate Division, First Department in 2012.

In September 2015, Johnson, who was the longest serving DA in the city, announced he would step down and seek election to the bench. He had been set to run for re-election with the backing of the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties, but said he was looking for a change and denied that political pressure had led him to seek out the new role.

The borough’s Democratic Party endorsed Johnson’s candidacy for judge and picked Clark as its replacement candidate for DA.

Pledging to bring change to the office, Clark trounced Republican Robert Siano, a solo practitioner, for the seat, earning 28,157 votes compared with 4,639 for Siano.

Clark’s husband is a longtime homicide detective with the New York City Police Department, which she said makes her home something like a real-life episode of “Law & Order.”

Compared with her time on the bench, serving as a district attorney has a much busier schedule, she said. She now makes frequent public appearances, routinely meets with community organizations and is on call for her office 24 hours a day.

“I believe in helping people and I believe in improving the quality of life of the people around me,” Clark said.

Problems of Justice

In the years before Clark was elected, the backlog of cases in the Bronx courts was growing larger and delays were frequent, which prompted court officials to take steps such as bringing in a special team of judges to handle the oldest cases.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed this year by The Bronx Defenders against state officials alleging that the delays in Bronx Criminal Court is infringing upon their clients’ constitutional rights, there were 2,378 misdemeanor cases at the beginning of this year that had been pending for at least one year and 538 that had been pending for more than two years.

Some criticized Johnson’s office for contributing to the delays, specifically through excessive adjournments requested by ADAs who were not prepared to try cases, and for having the lowest conviction rate of the city’s five DAs.

According to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the Bronx DA’s conviction rate for felony defendants was the lowest in the city and its percentage of acquittals was the highest.

As of mid-July, the office had a 56 percent year-to-date conviction rate, which would be an improvement of about nine percentage points over the rate for 2015 overall, but still remains the lowest in the city.

But a DA’s conviction rate should not be the “end all, be all” of assessing their performance, said Bennett Capers, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who teaches courses on criminal law and is a member of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.

He said that other factors, such as a DA’s relationship with the community she serves and building trust through “the cases she doesn’t bring” and “taking a stand for justice” should be considered when sizing up how well she is doing her job.

Additionally, Capers said, Bronx residents have generally had more contact with police than people who live in other parts of the city, which can make it difficult for prosecutors to win over juries.

“You can only get convictions based on the community you serve,” Capers said.

And while many prosecutors tout their conviction rates as indicators of how well they run their offices when seeking re-election, he said, a high conviction rate may not be the best way win over some Bronx voters.

“I’m not sure how much of a big seller that would be in the Bronx,” Capers said.

Promises of Change

Earlier this year, Clark successfully made her case to the New York City Council for $11.5 million in additional funding for her office to help her make good on her campaign promises, which brought her total budget to about $70 million for the current fiscal year.

The largest portion of the new funding, or $3.8 million, is being used to implement the vertical prosecution model, which she said could help reduce the backlog.

Clark said the new model should encourage the various bureaus in her office to take more ownership over the cases their ADAs are working on, thus increasing the standard of review.

“It’s a second set of eyes and a third set of eyes looking at the same cases again to make sure we’re doing them right,” Clark said. Additionally, she said, implementing the new model would likely cut down on requests for adjournment by ADAs, which she said was caused in part by the old “horizontal” model in which the same case was passed off to a different ADA numerous times.

She is also in the process of building her Rikers Island prosecution bureau, which will be tasked with working cases from what Clark calls the “worst” neighborhood in her jurisdiction. She is using $1.8 million of the new funding to establish the bureau and said it should have office space ready by next month.

Clark’s office is also in talks with the Office of Court Administration and the city government regarding her proposal for the court system to staff a court part on Rikers Island that would be tasked with hearing motion practice on cases generated from the jail, which Clark says would eliminate the need to transport inmates to the Bronx for court until their cases are ready for trial.

Clark is in the process of building a professional responsibility bureau, which will include an ethics committee that will investigate ethics complaints filed against ADAs, a litigation training unit to provide continuing legal education and a best practices committee to review CLE curriculum.

Earlier this year, Clark spoke out against the proposal before the state Legislature to create a commission for disciplining prosecutors for misconduct, which would have been modeled after the Commission on Judicial Conduct and which is roundly opposed by New York ‘s district attorneys.

But following the failure of the proposal, Clark said her office decided to put an internal mechanism in place similar to what was being proposed in the legislation to signal to the public that complaints would not just be “swept under the rug.”

“I can’t have someone work for me who is going to operate above the law and unethically,” Clark said. “I will not tolerate that.”

While Clark needed to wait several months before receiving the additional funding she needed to fuel some of her major initiatives, she did not wait long after her inauguration to begin making changes .

Shortly after taking office, Clark began making external hires to fill top-level positions in her office, including Jean Walsh, who was working as deputy superintendent of banks for the New York State Department of Financial Services, to serve as chief of the Investigations Division, which oversees the Rikers Island and public integrity units.

She also named Deanna Logan, who had been working as assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction’s trials litigation division, to head the Rikers Island bureau; and Wanda Perez-Maldonado to head the public integrity unit, which will prosecute cases involving corruption by elected officials.

Clark and her bureau chiefs also began reviewing some of its oldest cases to determine if they should be taken to trial or cleared from the office’s plate through some other means. As of Aug. 8, some 2,000 cases have been reviewed, of which about 800 have been taken to trial or disposed through pleas or dismissal.

She also formed a conviction integrity unit that, like the unit within Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson ‘s Office of the same name, reviews cases in which there are credible claims that a past defendant was wrongfully convicted.

“I’m not afraid to review the work that I do,” Clark said.

So far, Clark has consented to the release of Richard Rosario, who spent 20 years in jail for a murder he says he did not commit because he was in Florida at the time. But Clark did not immediately dismiss the charges when she consented to the release in March, saying she needed time to reinvestigate the case.

Rosario appeared before a judge in June to have the charges dropped, but in an unexpected move, Rosario told the judge that he wants the case to remain open for more investigation in hopes that he is fully exonerated.

The case will remain open until Sept. 30.

Positive Reception

Clark’s proposals have attracted support from elected leaders in the borough and members of the defense bar.

Alice Fontier, managing director The Bronx Defenders ‘ criminal defense practice, said in an email that addressing court delays and “systemic inefficiency” in the Bronx is “critical.”

“When people have to wait years to get their basic right to trial realized, their lives are destabilized, the collateral consequences of having an open case can be vast, and the time and expense of returning to court overwhelming,” Fontier said. Clark’s vertical prosecution model is a “critical first step” to addressing the backlog.

Corey Sokoler, president of the Bronx County Bar Association and a criminal defense attorney who worked for the Bronx DA before entering private practice almost 30 years ago, said Clark’s vertical prosecution plan would allow members of the defense bar to negotiate depositions with ADAs who have spent time with cases and can make “informed decisions.”

This could lead to quicker adjudication of cases, Sokoler said, which could help to clear up backlogs in the Bronx courts.

“We’ll be able to see real-time decisions being made in the courtroom,” Sokoler said.

Samuel Braverman, a veteran criminal defense attorney who is a partner at Fasulo Braverman & DiMaggio, said that he also supports the vertical prosecution model, which he said would prevent the problem of information getting lost as cases are handed off from ADA to ADA.

“It’s much better for cases generally,” he said.

Delays in cases may be beneficial for some defendants, he said, but not for those who are waiting in jail to go to trial or those who cannot afford to lose their jobs or support systems as delays drag on.

In the Bronx, the poorest county in the state, Braverman said, defendants tend to fall in the latter category.

As for Clark, Braverman said it appears that she is trying to increase the accountability of her office, which he supports.

“If she is committed to transparency and honesty in prosecution, I’m fully in favor of every change she can make,” he said.