This letter was submitted in response to a May 8 op-ed.
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My recent comments on legislative changes to criminal justice focused on a single aspect of the newly enacted bail reform. Major importers and distributors of heroin and fentanyl, charged with top narcotics sale or possession crimes, will walk out of court with no bail even if they have significant ties to foreign jurisdictions. This has received little attention, and in the midst of an opioid epidemic, it should. Instead of commenting on that issue, in her May 8, 2019 op-ed, Erin George dismisses as “scaremongering” my remarks and the efforts of district attorneys and law enforcement to explain the sweeping changes to laws governing bail and discovery (disclosure of witness information and evidence).
This legislation, passed as part of a budget bill and promoted as benefiting low-level nonviolent offenders, merits close scrutiny. Contrary to its promotion, it does not affect only low-level crimes. Under the new law, judges will have no choice but to release from custody those facing high level charges, ranging from illegal possession of 60 pounds of fentanyl and heroin, to embezzlement of millions of dollars. The bill was negotiated by a small group of legislators and advocates behind closed doors, and the public has been left in the dark.
Ms. George harkens back 10 years to Rockefeller drug law reform and mischaracterizes prosecutors’ responses. Not only does she falsely attribute disparaging statements and “slanderous language” to prosecutors, she ignores New York City prosecutors’ long history of successfully working to reduce the prison population in New York City and State.
One would hardly imagine, reading Ms. George’s op-ed, that my office began pioneering treatment alternatives to incarceration three decades ago. The Vera Institute singled out New York City in 2013 for its remarkable drop in correctional population while maintaining public safety. Admissions to state prison from New York City began to decline in 1992 and New York City’s jail population declined by 40 percent from 1991 to 2009 (prior to 2009 changes to the drug laws). The Vera Institute report highlighted prosecutors’ programs to divert drug offenders and changes in policing as significant factors in the dramatic reduction. The number of drug offenders in state custody has continued to decline by 36 percent from 2009 to 2017, even while New York is in the throes of an opioid epidemic.
The track record of New York City prosecutors reducing incarceration rates is one to be proud of, as is our record of ensuring public safety. Carefully balancing those two objectives, as well as educating and informing the public, is not fearmongering.
Bridget G. Brennan has served as the special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York since 1998.