No Papering Over Problems with City’s Justice System

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Brooklyn DA Thompson at an earlier event. Seized guns make for good press. But more mundane issues are hampering prosecutions in Brooklyn, he says.

There are issues in the criminal justice system that make the heart beat or the blood boil. Unsolved cases. Wrongful convictions. Beatings behind bars. Encrypted cell phones. And all of those issues came up Tuesday when the city’s prosecutors appeared before the City Council’s committee on public safety for their annual hearing on the mayor’s preliminary budget.

What was, striking, however, was that three of the six prosecutors at the witness table (the five county DAs were joined by the city’s special narcotics prosecutor) also touched on much more mundane issues about how information about criminal cases is handled and stored.

Queens DA Richard Brown said his office is “being inundated by Freedom of Information” requests.

Staten Island DA Michael McMahon said his agency doesn’t have a case management system; instead, individual prosecutors maintain their own spreadsheets to track their cases. The diffuse data means the Richmond County prosecutor’s office couldn’t produce an annual report if asked, McMahon said.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson referred to a “detrimental records management issue” in which the Kings County prosecutor is running out of room for the 18,000 felony and 23,000 misdemeanor case files it must store. He says the city’s Department of Records and Information Services, or DORIS, can’t accept files and, when it comes to the files DORIS does have, “They are also often unable to locate a file in their archives without substantial delay,” he says. According to Thompson. “The risk of a case being dismissed because a file cannot be found is real.”

The statements are similar to concerns raised in City Limits’ January investigation of FOIL requests to the Bronx district attorney’s office. Fact is, New York’s current approach to criminal records retention reflects an era when the integrity of convictions was by rule assumed, not questioned. Preserving accurate and comprehensive records and granting appropriate access to them on a timely basis is a boring but crucial element of a fair system of justice, and one that is not reliably provided now.

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