The Social Justice DA

Last week, the Jewish Voice offered up a rousing endorsement of incumbent Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Hynes, who has been in office since 1990,has overseen an astonishing dip in crime rates, including a decrease in murders, from 780 annually to 149 in 2012 – the lowest since 1960.

The Jewish Voice sat down with DA Hynes last week to talk about a variety of issues ranging from his holistic view of crime-fighting and his proclivity for social programs, to prosecuting sex offenders and the lack of qualifications of his opponent, Kenneth Thompson. Mr. Hynes also reminisced about his childhood and how it has affected his relationship with the Jewish community throughout the course of his tenure as DA.

Hynes grew up in a building in Flatbush that housed 85 families, 84 of whom were Jewish. He light-heartedly compared it to “living in a Borscht Belt hotel”. His boyhood friends were all Jewish, and it was from them that he learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust. “It was shocking to hear about people being destroyed for who they were,” the DA confided. These experiences colored how the DA approached issues of fairness and racial diversity, and it contributed to his social services initiatives throughout his career in law enforcement.

The District Attorney has been derided in the past as the “Social Justice DA” for his perceived laissez fair attitude toward traditional crime-fighting. Mr. Hynes has been accused of focusing too heavily on programs his detractors feel are best left to social workers, such as COMalert, his prisoner re-entry program; Back on Track, his drug treatment alternative plan; and the Family Justice Center for victims of domestic abuse. The District Attorney dismissed these allegations out of hand.

“I think it’s silly. As DA, I have an obligation to look at prosecution in different way. I remember Brooklyn in 1990 when I took office – one out of 15 of us was victim of a felony. 15 years later we ranked by Time Magazine as one of the ten best places to live in America.”

Mr. Hynes singled out three initiatives in particular as being crucial to his high level of success: the community liaison programs he set up when he first took office, the aforementioned drug treatment program, and his job training program for newly released convicts.

Mr. Hynes explained that, in a district as diverse as Brooklyn, it is crucial to find a way for various ethnic communities to work in tandem with law enforcement. His community outreach specialists arrange for neighborhood leaders to call meetings with the DA and his assistants, where they lay out strategies for addressing specific problems. “Usually between 6 and 10 months we’ve cleared the problem,” the DA asserted.

In terms of his re-entry and drug treatment programs, Hynes elaborated on how Brooklyn leads the way in creating a new level of taxpayers through counseling, teaching computer and interview skills, resume workshops, and GED programs. As proof of its efficacy, Hynes directs us to the 2007 study conducted by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, who found that Brooklyn’s re-arrest rate was just 20 percent (the national average is 60 percent).

These numbers help explain the DA’s admonitions against electing his opponent, Ken Thompson. “We cannot afford to go back to the way it was before 1990. This fellow I’m running against worked in the US Attorney’s office in eastern district and never was promoted as a supervisor. And here’s a guy who thinks he’s qualified to run an office with 1200 people and 500 ADAs. It’s ludicrous. And he will not commit to supporting a single program we created. I can tell u what it’s done to people in the  African American  community. it scared the hell out of them.”

The Attorney enjoys widespread support within the African American community due to his commitment to diversity (the Brooklyn DA, according to Mr. Hynes, is the most diverse in the country) and his effective community outreach programs. The DA enlightened the JV of a little known incident occurred in his office in the wake of the Amadou Diallo shooting of 1999. “I brought all my black assistants into my conference room and learned to my horror that every one of them had been stopped for driving a car. We decided we’d start to train Brooklyn cops on search and seizure and proper use of 4th amendment.”

“It is a very useful law enforcement tool if it is conducted in the way Chief Justice Earl Warren wanted it conducted in Terry v. Ohio, in the seminal case of Stop & Frisk in 1968, which requires a lawman to say, ‘There’s reasonable suspicion that can be articulated why I think that person may engage in criminal activity’. When talking to him you need to have reasonable suspicion to feel threatened before you can search. We have trained 47 hundred Brooklyn cops [in search and seizure] since 99 and last year we added stop and frisk, and it’s a useful tool. And I think except for one or two mayoral candidates everyone knows if it is properly used it is effective.”This anecdote provided a convenient segue to the topic on every New Yorkers mind – the controversial Stop & Frisk program. The DA confirmed its value as a valuable law enforcement tool.

The problem arose, the District Attorney explained, when, up until commissioner Ray Kelly instituted a change in policy, cops were often too liberal in the program’s use. The commissioner told us that 90 percent of those searched in Brooklyn were Black or Latino, and 90 percent were devoid of illegal contraband. The 10 percent of illegal items the DA’s office did get often weren’t admissible in a court of law, as the search procedures didn’t adhere to correct protocol. “What’s the point of taking a gun that will be suppressed in a hearing,” Hynes asked.

Mr. Hynes open-minded and culturally attuned outlook explains why he has been regularly reelected. In Brooklyn, win the support of the African American and Jewish communities, and you’re golden. But while his support across the borough prevalent, there have been grumblings emerging from Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox enclaves.

The controversy surrounds his handling of the recent high-profile prosecution of Orthodox sex offenders. As the allegations go, DA Hynes gives preferential treatment to Orthodox Jews. Mr. Hynes’ detractors claim that the DA’s office refused to prosecute sex abusers for years and, when he finally began to do so, opted against releasing the defendants’ identities.

The DA shook his head when the JV brought this up. “people aren’t looking at the facts, and the facts are that for 19 years I wasn’t able to get any significant cases of sexual abuse within the ultra-orthodox community, even though we had a number of allegations. But I wasn’t alone in that regard. Five jurisdictions in the US that have a significant percentage of ultra-orthodox residents – Rockland County and Orange County in northern suburbs, Dade County, and LA county. I know all the DAs, they are very good DAs, and none of us could get significant cases because a variety of factors like intimidation and shunning of victims who had temerity to come forward.

The tipping point, the DA told us, was the 2009 formation of the Kol Tzedek (Hebrew for “Voice of Justice”) outreach program.

“The Head of my sex crimes division, Rhonnie Jaus, who is a very talented investigative lawyer, began to meet with the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, the Jewish Board of Family Services, and Ohel.. The whole point was to use their vast communication network – email, newsletters, magazines, telephones – to get word out [to not be afraid] to police because it would become public and intimidation ensued. That was the major thrust. The subset was we would not name defendant for 24 hours. Once he was in court his name became public record. That 24-hour period gave the victims opportunity to call hotline and get the wraparound protection so they were comfortable with cooperating.”

The DA enacted these measures to defend against the “relentless search” for the victim that invariably occurs in the insular Orthodox community. Mr. Hynes added that the names of the defendants were also available in the online sex registry.

By the time the first editorials criticizing his alleged leniency, the DA said, he had 86 people under people under indictment. “My initial reaction was puzzlement.”

His goal, the DA told us, was to create a similar arrangement with orthodox leaders to the agreement he has with the Bishop of Brooklyn. “I said [to the Bishop], ‘You have no right to screen cases. you don’t have expertise –  you’re not investigative lawyers. If after 10 working days I see there’s no case I’ll send the file back. I won’t keep a paper clip.’”

The DA believes such an understanding can exist with the Jewish community as well. “As I said to Dovid Zwiebel (the leader of Agudath Yisroel of America, who encouraged members of the community to be cautious before going ot the authorities), ‘You’re going to cause rabbis to obstruct investigations. No one wants that.’ I hope that I’ll get him to change his opinion because he’s a very decent guy.”

While the District Attorney acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to do, he is very satisfied with how far the borough has come since his appointment to office. He credits the transformation to the numerous community-oriented programs he enacted in his time as Brooklyn’s chief law enforcement official.

“We have the most comprehensive program anywhere. It is all about understanding that putting people back in jail is the easiest thing to do. The tough struggle that occupies my time is how do we prevent crime and how do we offer convicts services to get them out of system. How do we deal with prisoners who have been released. There is a social service context, but it is logical and it works. As our irrepressible borough president Marty Markowitz likes to say, ‘If you left Brooklyn, tough. You can’t afford to come back.’”

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