Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez on Thursday defended a program aimed at keeping first-time offenders out of jail that he’s administered in recent years, after receiving criticism from a top NYPD official and the mayor for his use of it.
“I’m convinced— and the data and the research shows me— that a number of these young people that get caught with guns can be turned around,” Gonzalez told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. “I think it’s unconscionable to say that we’re going to give up on a 16-year-old or 17-year-old and send them to jail on their first arrest for three and a half years when they did not use the gun in a crime.”
“I’m committed to giving meaningful second chances,” he added.
The 18-24-month diversion program that Gonzalez has championed came under attack by the NYPD and the mayor after shootings in the Brooklyn North precincts rose by 28 percent this year compared to last, even as shootings borough-wide and overall crime continue to decline. According to NYPD statistics, 20 percent of those shootings occurred in four Brooklyn North precincts: 73 (Brownsville, Ocean Hill), 75 (East New York, Cypress Hills), 77 (northern Crown Heights, parts of Prospect Heights) and 79 (Bed-Stuy).
In response to the increase in shootings, the NYPD added cops to several precincts ahead of the summer, and another 80 cops to the 77th Precinct in June after the mayor called for an increase in police presence in Crown Heights.
On Thursday, Gonzalez explained that, in his view, it’s poses a fundamentally different situation when a gun is used in a crime—nobody who uses a gun in a violent crime “should ever be diverted,” he said—but said he’s confident that a gun being found in a person’s possession should not necessarily put them in jail for years.
He referenced a man who became a firefighter after undergoing the diversion program, and argued “those opportunities would be lost” if people are put in jail.
“New York State has the most rigorous, punitive gun laws in the United States,” he explained, adding that he wants to avoid subjecting people to such harsh sentences. “These young people we’re giving a second chance to are young people who would otherwise have to go to jail.”
“We’re doing well in terms of public safety, and I will continue to work with the police department to figure out how we drive those numbers down even lower,” he said.
Gonzalez’s comments come after Terrence Monahan, the NYPD’s chief of department, said the diversion program has in recent years been used too often when guns are in play.
“We’re getting the guns off the street, we’re upping gun arrests. What we need is that after that gun arrest is made, that person stays in jail,” he said on July 8 at a press conference. “When we look at Brooklyn — for the gun prosecutions — it has the least amount of time of any of the boroughs in the city, per gun conviction.”
Monahan also ascribed partial blame on the district attorney’s diversion program on the gun-violence uptick, citing just a pair of examples.
“Two of the individuals who were put into the program were re-arrested shortly thereafter with guns,” he said.
He requested that the district attorney reduce the number of people that are diverted rather than sent to jail.
“Out of 158 guilty pleas on gun indictments, 30 percent, or 47 cases, will be dismissed or sealed due to a diversion program,” he said. “I don’t believe that 30 percent of every gun arrest where a cop puts his life on the line to take a gun off the street should have their case sealed.”
The district attorney’s office subsequently countered Monahan’s numbers to Brooklyn Paper, saying that, since 2018, 11 percent of gun-related guilty pleas resulted in those individuals being diverted.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, for his part, has sided with the NYPD on the dispute.
“I agree with Chief Monahan,” he said at the July 8 press conference. “The men and women of the NYPD put their lives on the line, and they get these guns off the streets. It’s supposed to mean something.”
De Blasio said that the diversion program is a “valid tool” for non-violent offenses, but when firearms are involved, it’s a fundamentally different matter at hand.
“When there’s a gun, there should be follow-through by prosecutors, and depending on how serious the incident is, there should be serious consequences,” said the mayor. “We need that because the more we can disrupt the presence of guns on the street the more we can drive down crime.”