New York County District Attorney’s Office
Testimony before City Council Public Safety Committee
FY 2023 Budget & Oversight Hearings
March 18, 2022
Good afternoon Chair Kamillah Hanks and members of the Committee on Public Safety. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding my Office’s Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Budget, to highlight what we are doing to address and disrupt the rise in violence in our city and the help we need to meet the challenges we face. We thank the City Council for past support, my fellow District Attorneys for their collaboration, and know that a safer and fairer city requires all of us working together.
After years of a reduction in crime, in the past two years New York City has experienced an increase – a trend that has continued into the beginning of this year. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our lives in previously unimaginable ways. Amidst this incalculable flood of trauma and loss, violence spiked across the country.
As Manhattan continues to recover from the pandemic, restoring a sense of safety to our people and communities is essential. Businesses won’t thrive, riders won’t return to mass transit, and parents won’t feel comfortable letting their children play in the park or walk to the corner store unless we reverse the pandemic spike in violence.
From my first day in office 76 days ago, we have done what I’ve done throughout my career as a prosecutor and what this office is famous for: we’ve followed the evidence. And we’ve done it in a transparent and accountable way that has prompted an open and important discussion of safety and justice in our city.
So what does the evidence show? It shows that the majority of serious violent acts in our city— shootings, robberies, sexual assaults—are committed by a small number of people. We are laser-focused on those doing harm and driving violence, working in partnership with the NYPD to ensure that they are apprehended and held accountable.
The evidence shows that shooting incidents in Manhattan increased 26% last year and are up 14% citywide this year compared to the same time period last year. To address the significant spike in gun-related violence, we created the first ever Executive Assistant District Attorney for Gun Violence Prevention position. We know in fighting against gun violence and illegal guns, we are most effective when we work in a comprehensive, multi-lateral manner. So we are identifying and prosecuting those who are driving the violence, investigating and prosecuting gun traffickers, prosecuting those who carry guns on our streets, using gun possession cases as an opportunity to trace the sources of illegal guns and build cases against gun trafficking, redoubling the office’s efforts in identifying persons with a history of committing domestic violence who have guns, and working with community partners in intensified efforts to intervene before the violence occurs.
The evidence also shows a 35% increase in shoplifting incidents in Manhattan from 2020 to 2021. Store owners and employees across the borough have felt the impact and many of their businesses are struggling to survive. We’ve found that a relatively small cohort of people are committing an outsized amount of shoplifting in Manhattan. There are 251 people who have been arrested for retail theft at the same Manhattan location three or more times in 2021 alone, about 500 when you include multiple locations.
We formed a Small Business Alliance in partnership with the NYPD, store-owners, and service providers to develop strategies and launched a shoplifting task force in my office comprised of the highest-level executives, our Crime Strategies Unit, and data analysis staff that meets weekly to analyze the data, track existing cases, review incoming arrests, and determine the best approach for these repeat offenders.
We’re zeroing in on fencing operations, leveraging our Office’s intelligence and expertise in taking down criminal enterprises to identify and dismantle these rings, and looking to those arrested for lower level shoplifting to help identify the people making the big money running operations that resell stolen goods.
The evidence also shows that many of these and other cases are driven by extreme poverty, addiction, and mental illness. While there must be accountability in all cases, my life experiences growing up and raising my family in Harlem, my professional experiences as a prosecutor, and the data clearly shows incarceration is not always the best option. Well-designed initiatives that support and stabilize people – particularly individuals in crisis and youth –diminish the collateral harms of criminal prosecution and reduce re-offending.
Consistent with my mission, we are committed to getting help for people – as early on in the case as possible. To do this, we created the Pathways to Public Safety Division (“Pathways”) to elevate the use of diversion and evidence-based programming, ensuring individuals involved in the criminal justice system receive necessary services to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.
This major restructuring strengthens the Office’s work related to alternatives to incarceration, specialized court parts, pre-arraignment diversion, restorative justice practices, and reentry practices. Additionally, Pathways provides each of the six existing Trial Division bureaus with a dedicated prosecutor to serve as a resource from arraignment to sentencing, proactively identifying individuals who would benefit from diversion and programming without jeopardizing community safety.
This policy change not only in and of itself makes us safer; it also frees up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime. And in the bigger picture it will free up government resources that are now being spent on incarceration to address the root causes of crime.
These and other initiatives that have been implemented thus far were made utilizing existing budget funds. In past years, the Manhattan DA’s Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) has been used to support innovative community projects that fill critical gaps and needs in New York City. Guided by the principle of prevention as a cornerstone of a 21st century crime-fighting strategy, those investments provided a comprehensive, forward-looking approach to improving the well-being and safety of all New Yorkers.
For example, we created Manhattan Justice Opportunities, which provides a tailored diversion option for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases. We likewise built a Felony ATI Court Part to craft appropriate mandates for more serious felonies that hold people accountable while addressing the underlying needs driving their behavior. Through CJII, DANY funded the NYC Health Justice Network, a public health-based approach to reentry run by the city health department that deploys peers with lived experience of the justice system to connect with people returning from prison and jail. These peer health workers meet participants where they’re at, literally and figuratively, and use a trauma-informed approach to help them navigate the barriers to reintegration.
There are many programs that my Office has self-funded with forfeiture proceeds to date, but will not be able to much longer. The forfeiture fund is largely spent and this is not a stable funding source or a long-term solution for addressing needs. And at this critical time, we have some real needs to meet.
I would like to briefly highlight just a couple of the initiatives included in our new request and why they are so important at this time. I have submitted a summary of my budgetary requests as an addendum to my testimony.
Protecting tenants. At a time when so many are experiencing economic hardship and the moratorium on evictions expired, we must protect our residents by investigating and prosecuting those who seek to use the scarcity of affordable housing in New York City, and the complexities of the city’s housing regulations, to commit crimes including tenant harassment, deed fraud, and tax fraud.
Our office is seeking to create a Housing and Real Estate Fraud Unit to handle the large volume of housing-related complaints fielded by the office. Housing and real estate crimes affect a wide array of New Yorkers and costs the city millions in lost revenue. A designated unit would address the misconduct, return some of that lost revenue to the city, and work to prevent families and neighborhoods from being destabilized.
The Unit will consist of an Attorney-in-Charge, a Coordinator, and a Paralegal. The Attorney-in-Charge will handle the investigation and prosecution of the cases accepted by the Unit, from start to finish. The Housing Coordinator will enhance this work, such as by helping to identify buildings with potentially vulnerable tenants through the analysis of publicly available data of landlord evictions, applications for permits, violations, and tenant complaints. The Paralegal will provide further support with case preparation.
Finally, the Office’s ability to address crimes involving housing and real estate would greatly benefit from further community outreach and education. Successful prosecution of housing related matters would require extensive inter-agency cooperation. To that end, the Attorney-in-Charge will do outreach on behalf of the Office to local elected officials, other city agencies, community groups and tenant organizations, and will educate our partners about the types of behavior that is criminally actionable. The Housing Coordinator will act as a liaison to agency partners, and meet regularly with those partners to strengthen relationships and share information. These actions will result in increased public awareness of these crimes and will reduce the number of individuals who fall victim to this array of conduct.
We estimate that to fully fund this group it will cost approximately $280,000 a year.
Hate Crimes. Hate crimes have risen at a startling rate in New York City in recent years, particularly in Manhattan. Last year we saw the number of hate crimes in Manhattan increase by 160% and this year citywide numbers have more than doubled what they were this time last year. Now more than ever, we must stand in unwavering support of communities that have been victimized by senseless violence, racism, and hatred over the past year and beyond. Attacks of hate, especially on our elderly residents, are horrifying, not just to the victims who suffer physical injury but to the entire community that lives in fear. We will hold those who commit these acts of violence and hate accountable.
We need a dedicated unit that is supported by a full time Chief and two full time Deputy Chiefs, as well as investigative analysts and line ADAs who take on hate crimes cases as a secondary assignment alongside their general crimes case load. The HCU must also continue to be supported by the Investigations Bureau, WASU, and CPU, but with dedicated hate crimes staff from each of those units.
This will increase the Unit’s proactive investigations and prosecutions, enhance its cultural and linguistic competencies; ensure all staff and our law enforcement partners receive specialized training; expand community engagement and advocacy; and enhance partnerships with community-based organizations and other law enforcement agencies.
We estimate that to fully fund this group it will cost approximately $1.6 Million a year.
Post-Conviction Justice Unit. Wrongful convictions are the height of injustice. They ruin the lives of the wrongfully convicted, impair law enforcement’s ability to apprehend the persons who actually committed the crime, and severely undermine the public’s faith in our criminal justice system. We are building a new unit, fully resourced, and reporting directly to me. This work promotes public safety by enhancing community collaboration and trust and ensures the reliability of prior convictions.
The PCJU’s mission has three main pillars: (1) independent and impartial post-conviction investigation, done in collaboration with impacted individuals and their counsel to determine whether a conviction should be vacated or modified where there is no longer confidence in the outcome; (2) services and support to exonerees, as well as to victims and survivors who may be deprived of closure; and (3) promoting conviction integrity in future prosecutions by advising the Office in best practices, including through new trainings and root cause analysis reports.
To fulfill this mission, we need additional funds to add attorneys and other critical staff. At present, the unit is understaffed, especially in comparison to other local DA’s offices. It is comprised only of a Unit Chief, a Deputy Chief, and an Investigative Analyst. Our work requires, in addition to these positions, the following: six additional attorneys to be assigned to case review, investigations, and report writing; four investigators to locate witnesses and evidence in sometimes decades-old cases to assist in evaluating claims; and three other non-legal professional staff to assist in screening cases, data tracking, and reporting on the factors that may have caused wrongful convictions.
We estimate that to fully fund this group it will cost approximately $1.1 Million a year.
Discovery. My Office’s lawyers and support staff continue their herculean efforts in managing discovery-related obligations. The management of the content that my Office receives is enormously challenging. By way of example, before 2020, my Office used approximately thirty-two (32) terabytes of storage. Today, two years after the passage of the discovery reform statutes, my Office now consumes three hundred and twenty (320) terabytes of storage, a 900% increase in just two years.
Much of this growth is tied to the video and digital evidence that is now part of every investigation. For example, our Body Worn Camera Unit has linked and stored more than 339,000 videos associated with investigations and cases between January 2020 and March 4, 2022.
And even excluding the body cam footage, we’ve received approximately 401,920 zip files from NYPD since January 1, 2020 – the beginning of discovery reform. That is 502 zip files per day sent to our Office, just from NYPD (401,920 zip files/800 days=502). It is over 100 terabytes of data (the zip files and the un-zipped files combined).
Additionally, the state’s discovery laws require that we must both reproduce and keep tremendously more paper on every case than had been required in the past. Keeping copies of these discoverable materials help to ensure against any court challenges to what was provided within the new 15-day discovery window.
Faced with these unprecedented evidentiary demands, we’ve experienced record attrition, as our ADAs burned out and sought less demanding jobs for more money. We must be able to hire additional staff to be able to comply with the new discovery requirements and keep up with staff attrition.
Since funding was added in 2019, my Office has hired well over 100 support staff positions throughout the Office to address this need, but the growing backlog of cases and increase in serious violent cases requires additional resources to make sure that we are able to fulfill our increased obligations on Discovery. We ask that the City continue their investment in our discovery efforts by providing an additional $3 Million a year for staff across the Office to fill these roles.
Pay Parity. A starting salary in San Francisco is $114, 816. In Westchester, it’s $84,173. Our starting salary for newly admitted attorneys of $72,000 is one of the lowest in the New York City metropolitan area, and below that of the Law Department. This low starting salary combined with the burdens of tremendous law school debt and the cost of living in New York City makes it extremely challenging for our offices to recruit recent law school graduates in the competitive legal labor market. Each of the DA offices here today have been asking for the City to address this discrepancy for years, with only a minor adjustment made 4 years ago for a fraction of our attorneys. My Office estimates that to fully accomplish this important goal, to increase to the level of the Law Department, it would cost approximately $6 Million a year to ensure that the salaries for all legal staff are equitable and allow for them to afford to live in the City they serve.
Increased Mental Health Court capacity. We are continually and tragically reminded of the consequences of the criminal justice system’s failure to address the needs of mentally ill people in a manner that keeps them and other community members safe. The Manhattan Mental Health Court (MMHC) is one tool to humanely and safely address the treatment needs of seriously mentally ill people who are accused of crimes in order to prevent recidivism avoid sending seriously mentally ill people to state prison, where the mental health of such individuals typically deteriorates. MMHC links people who meet both clinical and legal eligibility requirements to court-supervised, community-based treatment and services as an alternative to conventional prosecution and incarceration. Those who fulfill all of the program requirements, including adhering to a treatment plan and not reoffending, avoid incarceration and have the charges against them reduced or dismissed. This outcome enhances public safety and improves the well-being of the accused person.
We need to put people on the Mental Health Court track faster and we need to open up new slots to treat more people. At present, the MMHC capacity is only 50 cases per year. We would like to increase capacity to 200. MMHC is funded through Health & Hospitals. We estimate the additional cost would be $3.3 million per year.
Justice for Workers. In recent years, workers in New York and across the nation have faced unfair challenges and threats to their livelihood, from wage theft to life-threatening hazards on the job. There are also employers who try to cheat their workers out of overtime, workers’ compensation, and unemployment taxes by “misclassifying” them as independent contractors or forcing them to work off the books. New York City has high levels of violations of workplace laws – a recent report states that employers steal up to $3 billion from New Yorkers each year.
It is harder than ever for workers to get justice in the face of these challenges. Through CJII, DANY funded The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) to lead the Manhattan Justice for Workers Collaborative (MJWC), a group of workers’ rights and occupational health and safety organizations working to increase reporting of workplace crime, especially safety and health violations and wage theft. The Collaborative focuses on outreach, education, case management, reporting and victim services. The program aims to reduce the disproportionate number of Latino immigrant New Yorkers who are victims of these workplace crimes. MJWC works to increase reporting of employer crimes against low-wage workers in all industries, but particularly in NYC’s construction industry.
The Collaborative leverages the outreach capacity of several worker training programs and has reached more than 51,600 workers since the start of the initiative. DANY funded MJWC at $1,589,783 over 3.5 years. Program funding will end on May 31, 2022.
With your help, and in partnership with the Mayor, NYPD, and the communities we serve, my Office will continue to work to make Manhattan a model of safety and justice for all. I thank you for your partnership to make it happen.
New York County District Attorney’s Office
Testimony before City Council Public Safety Committee
FY 2023 Budget & Oversight Hearings
March 18, 2022
Appendix A – Summarized New Need Requests
- Protecting Tenants – $280,000 – A fully staffed unit to investigate instances of tenant harassment and housing related matters, including an Attorney-in-Charge, a Unit Coordinator, and a paralegal.
- Conviction Review Unit – $1.1 Million – This funding would bring DANY’s Conviction Review Unit to the levels seen in the other boroughs. This includes 6 Assistant District Attorneys, 4 Investigators, and 3 analysts.
- Discovery – $3 Million – Funding for additional staff to fulfill our increased obligations on discovery. This includes 50 various positions at an average salary of $60,000.
- ADA Pay Parity – $6 Million – Funding needed to bring our legal staff salaries up to the same levels as the Law Department and the other boroughs.
- Hate Crimes Unit – $1.6 Million – This includes funding for the Hate Crimes Chief, 2 Deputies, 3 part time ADAs in each Trial Bureau (for a total of 18 part time ADAs), 2 investigative analysts, 2 detective investigators, 1 Victim Service Counsel and 1 Victim Services Advocate, and 2 Community Partnership Coordinators.
- Manhattan Mental Health Treatment Court – $3.3 Million – Additional funding to increase the number of Manhattan Mental Health Treatment Court participants with New York City Health + Hospitals from 50 to 200 per year.