New York City DAs Urged To Decline To Prosecute Low-Level Offenses

Published on September 16, 2020, 2:10 pm
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More than 31 community based organizations, unions, civil rights organizations, public defenders, and local political organizations wrote a letter to all five New York City District Attorneys urging them to decline to prosecute low level offenses. Black and brown New Yorkers have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and they are disproportionately targeted by NYPD. These community members are most likely to be brought into criminal courts, jails, prisons, and other carceral settings that are petri dishes for COVID-19.

Since the beginning of September, many accused persons have been required to appear in court in-person to resolve desk appearance tickets (DATs). These are non-essential cases, and the vast majority are for low-level alleged offenses. The pandemic is not over, and courts remain high risk environments for litigants, workers, and every community member that they interact with while traveling to and from court. The majority of New York City courts do not have the quality of air filtration systems recommended by public health experts for public spaces, and the public lacks clarity on OCA’s protocols regarding adequate cleaning, compliance, and safety measures for those who attend court. New York City’s District Attorneys hold significant power, and dismissing these offenses during the worst pandemic of our lives will protect vulnerable communities from exposure to COVID-19. This is not only good public policy, it is justice.

“District Attorneys are empowered to do justice. Dismissing low level offenses disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, accomplishes this task,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “Choosing to prosecute these offenses will lead to further collateral consequences, as many of these low level convictions impact housing, benefits, and for some they have harsh immigration consequences. I support the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and others in calling for our City’s DAs to decline to prosecute low level offenses to help protect the health and welfare of our communities.”

“Open criminal court cases have dire consequences for the same communities that were most ravaged by COVID-19,” said Jared Trujilllo, President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. “District Attorneys can help communities heal by dismissing open desk appearance tickets. Notably, many of these cases would have been dismissed if Governor Cuomo had not suspended the speedy trial law. Navigating life during COVID-19 is hard enough without these low-level offenses hanging over one’s head. Justice requires that District Attorneys dismiss these cases immediately.”

“It is always unconscionable to use the weapon of the criminal-punishment system against marginalized people, and especially so during global pandemic. If DAs proceed with prosecuting low-level offenses, you are actively subjecting criminalized people who are disproportionately low-income, Black, and/or trans/queer to heightened infection risk, trauma, and barriers to economic stability–with negative benefit to public safety. Not declining to prosecute would be a form of state violence,” said Tanya Nguyen, a Chapter Organizer at Black and Pink NYC.

“The COVID-19 crisis is not behind us. As we prepare for a potential 2nd wave, it is essential that our courts prioritize our collective public health. Risking the lives and health of mostly Black and Brown New Yorkers does nothing to advance public safety. In fact, it undermines it,” said Ann Matthews, Managing Director of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders.

The right choice must be made to stop the prosecution of all low level offenses. The true purpose of prosecuting low level offenses is biased and racist. It is a pathway to mass incarceration and it is time to end the long practice of mass incarceration,” said Anthony Beckford, President of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn.

In a city that has strives to somehow contain this terrible virus, having low level offenders appear in court may be the worst decision in terms of keeping NYers safe and healthy. As usual the criminal justice system will end up putting the lives of Black and brown individuals at risk,” said Cecilia Gentili, Principal at Trans Equity Consulting.

“Low level offenses often target marginalized communities like people of color and LGBTQ people. We should be tackling the root causes of problems, not feeding people into a criminal justice system,” said District Leader and Coalition for District Alternatives member John Blasco.

In today’s pandemic it is an issue of life or death,” said Allen Roskoff, President of the Jim Owles Liberal Democractic Club.

The content of the letter can be viewed below and here.


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September 16, 2020

Hon. Darcel Clark, Esq.
The Office of Bronx District Attorney
198 E. 161st Street, Bronx NY 10451

Hon. Eric Gonzalez, Esq.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office
350 Jay Street, Brooklyn NY 11201

Hon. Melinda Katz, Esq.
The Queens County District Attorney’s Office
80-02 Kew Gardens Rd., Kew Gardens NY 11415

Hon. Michael McMahon, Esq.
Office of The District Attorney Richmond County
130 Stuyvesant Place, Staten Island NY 10301

Hon. Cyrus Vance, Esq.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office
One Hogan Place, New York, NY 10013

Re: Request that New York City DA’s Decline to Prosecute Low-Level Offenses During COVID-19

Dear New York City District Attorneys:

The undersigned organizations work with low-income New Yorkers, who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, disproportionately targeted by NYPD, and are overwhelmingly Black or brown. These community members are most likely to be brought into criminal courts, jails, prisons, and other carceral settings that are all petri dishes for COVID-19. New York City’s District Attorneys hold significant power, and the undersigned organizations urge you to decline to prosecute low level offenses to help protect the health and welfare of our communities.

Beginning in early September, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) has required accused persons to make in-person appearances to resolve desk appearance tickets (DATs). These are non-essential cases, and the vast majority are for low-level alleged offenses. The pandemic is not over, and courts remain high risk environments for
litigants, workers, and every community member that they interact with while traveling to and from court. The majority of New York City courts do not have the quality of air filtration systems recommended by public health experts for public spaces, and the public lacks clarity on OCA’s protocols regarding adequate cleaning, compliance, and safety measures for those who attend court. Prosecuting these cases in-person will adversely impact public health, and likely lead to an increase in infections in vulnerable communities.

Moreover, prioritizing the prosecution of these low-level offenses and even threatening the possibility of jail time during the pandemic would be inhumane and will only add to the trauma of communities most impacted. New York City jails have had some of the highest rates of COVID in the world recently. Open cases and convictions frequently negatively impact employment and housing at a time when home instability and
unemployment are skyrocketing in New York. Likewise, there can be dire immigration
consequences for offenses as minor as petty larceny, which communities should not be
exposed to during a pandemic.

Dismissing these low level offenses during the worst pandemic of our lifetime is not only
good policy, it is justice.

We ask that you move swiftly to decline to prosecute these cases.

Signed,

Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (UAW 2325)
Black and Pink NYC
Black Lives Matter Brooklyn
The Bronx Defenders
Center for Community Alternatives
Coalition for District Alternatives LES
Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC)
Decrim NY
Emergency Release Fund
Fines and Fees Justice Center
Freelancers Union
Freedom Socialist Party
GAPIMNY—Empowering Queer & Trans Asian Pacific Islanders
Harm Reduction Coalition
Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center
Indivisible Harlem
Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club
Lesbian & Gay Democractic Club of Queens
Manhattan Young Democrats
Make The Road New York
Mental Health Project – Urban Justice Center
National Writers Union
Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem
NYC Anti-Violence Project
Peter Cicchino Youth Project
Queeramisu
Safety Net Project – Urban Justice Center
Sex Workers Project – Urban Justice Center
Soar Institute
Trans Equity Consulting
United Autoworkers Union Region 9A

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