Rising above the turbulent waters of our time, we are building bridges – bridges to keep our communities safe while embracing new, progressive approaches toward prosecution and the criminal justice system.
Diversion and Alternative Sentencing
Effective strategies for protecting our communities must be multi-faceted and comprehensive. While punishing our most dangerous, violent offenders is always a priority, too many of our communities continue to be plagued by the cycle of crime, drug use, and incarceration. This cycle cannot be broken unless we substantially bolster alternatives and diversion from prison.
District Attorney Katz has created the Rehabilitation Programs and Restorative Services Bureau, which is a fulfillment of her promise to keep our county safe while ensuring that justice is administered with compassion and equity. A vital part of the Bureau is the Diversion and Alternative Sentencing Unit, which is dedicated to ensuring that individuals who have been arrested are offered opportunities for appropriate interventions and/or rehabilitative services. The Unit offers pre- and post-arraignment diversion opportunities to individuals arrested for low-level offenses, and works closely with collaborative problem-solving courts offering treatment and a supportive court experience rather than an adversarial one. The diversion opportunities provide one-time or short- term interventions that typically result in cases being sealed upon successful completion.
The Unit works with all stakeholders, including the judiciary, the defense bar, and service providers to ensure, for example, that those experiencing substance abuse addiction or mental health issues are connected to meaningful community-based services. Additionally, within the Unit, the Second Chance Community Justice Program is a diversion program where community members/leaders hear cases referred to them and offer low-level offenders the opportunity to repair and restore their relationships with their communities. With an emphasis on accountability, offenders are given a chance to understand the impact their crimes have had on the victim and the community. This “restorative justice” approach has been shown to reduce recidivism, increase safety, and create stronger communities. Here in Queens, we continue to offer effective — and cost-effective — courts & programs to help non-violent offenders break the cycle of addiction that fuels criminal behavior.
A Fair and Just Plea Policy
Immediately upon taking office, District Attorney Katz ended the prior administration’s policy that required defendants to waive their rights prior to indictment in order to obtain a plea to a lesser charge. Under the prior policy, incarcerated defendants were required to waive their right to have a grand jury promptly hear their cases in order to obtain a plea offer. In addition, all defendants charged with a felony were also required to waive their rights to a speedy trial while plea negotiations took place. On day one, District Attorney Katz repudiated these policies and implemented a new policy that now permits defendants to obtain a fair plea offer without waiving any of their rights and no matter when in the process the negotiations occur. This policy puts into practice District Attorney Katz’s belief that defendants should not be forced to give up the rights they have been afforded by statute.
Under District Attorney Katz’s leadership, the Office has rejected a hardline policy on parole recommendations. DA Katz has implemented a policy that takes into account not only the facts underlying the crime but the defendants’ efforts at rehabilitation. The District Attorney believes that we must consider the defendants who have demonstrated that they are good candidates for parole and also consider the enormous daily costs of housing additional prisoners who are ready to reenter society under the supervision of parole.
Fewer Prosecutions of Lower Level Offenses
DA Katz has instituted a number of new policies designed to address racial disparities and systemic injustice. In 2020, the District Attorney declined to prosecute 26 % of all violation arrests, a 15% increase in declinations from 2019. In addition, she has not prosecuted several low- level offense categories and every arrest is closely evaluated before charges are filed.
During the peaceful protests and organized marches for justice and the end of racial inequality, DA Katz declined to prosecute all arrests based solely on violations of curfew or the failure to socially distance or wear a mask, as they disproportionately affected communities of color.
Sealing Decades-Old, Non-Violent Convictions
A significant function of the Appeals Bureau is to respond to motions to seal convictions pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Law that allows for sealing of ten-year-old, non-violent convictions under certain circumstances. Information on how to make an application to seal a case can be found on the website of the Office of Court Administration. Although our Office does not ultimately determine these motions, the Appeals Bureau routinely does not oppose sealing motions if the applicant qualifies for this relief. This past year, the courts sealed thirty-one convictions, freeing those applicants of the encumbrance of decades-old, non-violent convictions.
Demanding Excellence through Training
One of DA Katz’s highest priorities is ensuring that the staff abide by the appropriately high ethical standards that are imposed upon prosecutors. As such, she has enhanced the Office’s Legal Training Department to ensure tiered training of all Assistant District Attorneys as well as the continuing legal education of the Office's professional staff. Training programs include the Incoming Orientation Training Program for new hires, a Felony Assistant/Grand Jury Training Program, meant to develop prosecutors as they progress in their career and begin handling felonies, as well as trial advocacy training for both Criminal Court and Supreme Court assistants. In addition to the career programs, the Legal Training Department administers monthly and weekly continuing legal education both Office-wide and to individual divisions and bureaus, including training on the complexities of providing prosecution services in the most ethnically and racially diverse county in the United States. The District Attorney has also instituted an enhanced protocol for identifying and promptly addressing potential mistakes and issues. Further, Assistant District Attorneys are required to attend at least three community events per year in order to raise their community awareness.
FOIL and Civil Litigation Unit
The FOIL and Civil Litigation Unit handles requests under the Freedom of Information Law and responds to inter-agency and law enforcement requests for records on specific cases as well as subpoenas for records or testimony in civil litigation. In 2020, the Unit responded to approximately 300 FOIL requests, providing the public with access to thousands of pages of documents. Under DA Katz’s direction, the FOIL Unit is responding swiftly to these requests and has also increased reporting on the number of police officers involved in job-related civil lawsuits.
Where permissible under the law, the Office has broadened the categories of information we now disclose. We recently disclosed a list of 2,100 police officers involved in job-related civil lawsuits – noted to be one of the most expansive in the City.