New York County District Attorney’s Office
Testimony before City Council Public Safety Committee
FY 2024 Budget & Oversight Hearings
March 20, 2023
Good afternoon Chair 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 2024 Preliminary Budget. We thank the City Council for its past support, my fellow District Attorneys for their collaboration, and know that a safer and fairer city requires all of us working together.
As a resident of this city, as a father raising two children here, and as the Manhattan District Attorney, there is no higher priority for me than keeping our city safe. My goal as District Attorney is to deliver the safety our communities need and the fairness we deserve.
We are achieving these goals with targeted enforcement to hold crime-drivers accountable today, and investments in preventative measures to keep our communities safe in the long term.
That is the strategy we’re applying to gun violence, hate crimes, sexual assault, domestic violence, retail theft, and beyond.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR EXISTING WORK
For two years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation saw an alarming increase in gun violence, and our city and our borough were not immune to this trend. However, as our recovery continues, we are starting to see the rates of violence come back down.
We ended 2022 with shootings down 20% in Manhattan and homicides down 16% in Manhattan, outpacing declines citywide.
This decline in gun violence isn’t coincidental. My office is pursuing a comprehensive gun violence reduction strategy that combines targeted enforcement focused on the drivers of crime, and targeted investments in evidence-informed prevention. Both pieces of that strategy are essential.
On the enforcement side:
- Our gun prosecutions were up approximately 18% last year.
- Together with our federal partners, we’re tracing the guns we seize to build gun trafficking cases.
- We also established the Ghost Gun Initiative in partnership with the NYPD in 2020. So far, we’ve seized 85 ghost gun parts, 42 fully assembled ghost guns, 24 serialized firearms, 421 high-capacity magazines, 45 silencers, and other gear including scopes and rapid-fire modification devices.
On the prevention side, our Witness Aid Services Unit, or WASU, provides direct counseling and advocacy for witnesses and survivors of non-fatal shootings (and other crimes). Clients are not required to cooperate with an investigation or testify to get these services. They are freely available to those who need them.
We are particularly proud of our Men of Color Response Team, which was created in 2021 and expanded in 2022, to provide culturally responsive support services tailored to the particular needs and experiences of men of color. We know from numerous studies that men of color are disproportionately harmed by violence generally, and gun violence specifically. NYPD data showed that in 2021, 97% of shooting victims citywide were Black or Latino. Yet, men of color are also less likely than other crime victims to receive victim services for a host of reasons.
We hired men of color counselors who share similar life experiences with the clients they serve, so it’s easier for their clients to connect with them and form trusting relationships. These counselors meet with victims in their communities. They listen and engage with the complex challenges these young men face—not only neighborhood violence but also structural violence and past negative experiences with law enforcement.
They advocate for victim compensation, school transfers, and Orders of Protection. They help with housing, including emergency relocation and assistance with moving and storage. They provide safety planning, and of course, counseling, mental health referrals, and referrals to trauma-informed support groups.
We are also engaging with our community to boost our prevention efforts. Back in August, we awarded $20,000 each to a number of community-based organizations for youth gun violence prevention work.
Addressing the trauma sustained by victims of violence is both a public safety strategy and a human rights strategy.
HATE CRIMES UNIT
We are very grateful for the additional $1.7 million in baseline funding we received from the City last year, which helped us hire full-time staff for our Hate Crimes Unit, as well as staff trained in hate crimes to support units throughout the Office. With this additional staffing and prioritization of resources, we expanded and enhanced our hate crimes investigations and prosecutions, victim services support, community engagement, law enforcement partnerships, internal and external training and education, and cultural and linguistic competencies.
Our office is investigating more hate crimes than ever before. The Hate Crimes Unit takes a holistic approach to determining appropriate dispositions, ranging from incarceration to mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and bias-related education.
The Unit is staffed by a Unit Chief and Deputy Unit Chief, as well as 20 cross-designated Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs), three senior Investigative Analysts, a paralegal, and two designated Hate Crimes Investigators with law enforcement experience who are both fluent in Cantonese. The specially assigned attorneys receive hate crimes trainings focused on:
- Investigating bias-motivated incidents and presenting hate crimes cases to a Grand Jury
- Embracing cultural competency when working with victims and witnesses
- Understanding historical acts of bias and discrimination
The Hate Crimes Unit also works in tandem with three other units to achieve our goals.
First, WASU provides victims of hate crimes with services including counseling, safety planning, and other resources. Notably, after receiving last year’s funding, we have hired one AAPI Victim Advocate who is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin, one Counselor who is fluent in Cantonese, and a Victim Services Advocate focused on LGBTQIA needs.
Second, the Community Partnerships Unit (“CPU”) engages with the community and organizes community events, educational programming, trainings and meetings to further our goals of hate crimes education and prevention. With the City’s 2022 funding, we also hired a Deputy CPU Director for the Prevention of Hate Crimes to expand our community outreach work.
Third, our Data Analytics & Research Unit (“DARU”) supports the Hate Crime Unit’s efforts to track and analyze hate crimes data and improve data reporting capabilities in order to inform investigations and develop more strategic crime prevention solutions.
Special Victims Division
Domestic violence and sexual assault are also high priorities for our office. At the start of my administration we launched a new Special Victims Division, which includes Domestic Violence as well as our Sex Crimes, Human Trafficking, Child Abuse, and Elder Abuse Units. The creation of a Special Victims Division on par with the Appeals, Investigation, Pathways, and Trial Divisions speaks to one of the Office’s core values: putting the dignity and wellbeing of survivors at the center of our work.
The new organizational structure – along with the dedication of resources commensurate with a Division in the Office – represent a significant step toward best supporting our survivor-centered and trauma-informed practice.
Similarly, we have also elevated the role of WASU within the Special Victims Division. WASU provides advocacy, counseling, and other support for victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, regardless of whether they wish to participate in a prosecution.
Our Human Trafficking Response Unit is prosecuting heinous and complex trafficking cases, including the indictment of a couple who trafficked multiple women across six states and forced them into sexual violence for their own financial gain. Just this month, we indicted three men for running a sex trafficking ring that targeted vulnerable women coming through the Port Authority.
This unit is also leading the way in vacating convictions of survivors of human trafficking under the 2021 START Act, enabling them to move forward with their lives without the burden of a criminal conviction. Not only have we consented to every START Act motion made thus far, we are applying the same approach to new and existing cases. If there is a credible claim that someone committed a crime as a result of human trafficking, we dismiss the case.
We’ve also redoubled our focus on the intersection between guns and domestic violence. At DANY, it is now our regular practice to seek a search warrant in any domestic violence case where there is evidence that the accused abuser has access to a firearm. Together with our law enforcement partners, that increased focus has led to an increase in executions of search warrants, seizures of illegal firearms, and gun prosecutions of known and suspected domestic abusers.
PATHWAYS TO PUBLIC SAFETY
Our Pathways to Public Safety Division is perhaps the most revolutionary change we’ve undertaken during my tenure. This division, the first of its kind in any New York City prosecutor’s office, enhances and elevates 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.
With Pathways, we have specially trained ADAs embedded in every Trial Bureau to screen and assess every felony case for diversion as soon as they come through the door. Not every case is going to be diverted, of course, but we are ensuring they all get reviewed by the same person, thereby ensuring consistency. We assess each case individually, and if diversion is appropriate, we tailor services individually to meet the person’s needs.
With everything we do, we are laser focused on keeping our communities safe. Sometimes that requires incarceration, but often the safest thing we can do is help integrate people into positive social networks and use community-based services to address the issues that are driving their behavior. For these individuals, jailing them for short periods of time creates an endless cycle of recidivism that makes our communities less safe, and our Pathways Division is dedicated to breaking those cycles.
It’s a work in progress, but we have substantially increased our Alternative-to-Incarceration and Mental Health Court referrals already, by more than 140% over the last year, and will continue this momentum as we fully integrate these practices into our work.
Retail theft has been a major focus of our work this past year. One of the first things I did as District Attorney was create a Manhattan Small Business Alliance, bringing together business owners, heads of business improvement districts, the NYPD, and community-based organizations to develop solutions for the rise in shoplifting.
We used data to prioritize the small number of repeat offenders causing the most harm. Our Crime Strategies Unit sets arrest alerts and builds out profiles to make the strongest possible bail argument when recidivists with open cases are rearrested.
Our next step is to keep track of people who re-offend after they have been arrested and released on open cases to pursue meaningful outcomes—intensive treatment or state prison time—rather than the revolving door of short jail sentences. We identified target neighborhoods experiencing the most retail theft based on input from business owners and community members and police department data. And we are focusing on recidivists with open cases in those target neighborhoods.
Even before such an individual is arraigned, our Pathways Division assesses what, if any, programming might be appropriate based on what we know from their past cases. We always use different tools for different people. For certain opportunists who are stealing because theft makes a profit, we will seek incarceration to hold them accountable, particularly if they are victimizing small businesses.
Other times, it is clear that the person has serious underlying issues driving their behavior that aren’t going to be fixed by sending them to jail, whether they be substance use disorders, mental illness, a lack of housing, or similar issues. In those cases, beginning a diversion assessment in advance allows us to can quickly to get those individuals into meaningful programming that hopefully breaks the cycle of recidivism.
We’re also following the money to build cases against large scale fencing operations.
And we are advocating for legislation to make it harder to fence stolen goods online, and to make fostering stolen goods an A misdemeanor—both proposals that retailers support.
Our city’s mental health infrastructure has long been inadequate to meet the needs of those who interact with the criminal justice system. That broken system was further disrupted by COVID, which impacted all our support structures. Those who rely on these already difficult-to-navigate systems often fell off the radar completely. The results were predictable. Rikers Island is now the largest provider of mental health services in New York City and one of the largest in the country.
To address this, I using asset forfeiture funds to invest in the creation of a network of community-based peer navigators to work directly with the neediest members of our communities, building trust and long-term relationships to address the complex needs of these individuals. Our navigators will engage with folks in two ways:
- First, neighborhood-based navigators will engage with the neediest individuals in our communities, and help provide services that are not linked to criminal justice in any way.
- Second, court-based navigators will engage with individuals immediately after criminal court arraignment and join them in their communities to build long-term trusting relationships. Their work will be distinct and separate from any court-mandated programming, though they may support such programming if it would be useful.
In addition to working with individuals, the neighborhood navigators will also work with our small businesses and others out in the community to help address their needs. When community members see an issue arise with individuals experiencing these challenges, they will have a navigator to call who can help intervene and de-escalate.
These grants are rooted in data and analysis of previous efforts of this nature. While both of these programs will operate outside the criminal legal system, both will help address the deep-rooted mental health problems that our city faces, and in so doing will advance public safety.
POST CONVICTION JUSTICE
I also want to talk about our Post-Conviction Justice Unit and correcting the wrongs of our past. We know that if people do not trust our system to do the right thing, they will not play by its rules, which is why building trust in our work is critical to public safety as well as to our fundamental principles of justice.
In July, we announced the first exoneration by our newly expanded Post-Conviction Justice Unit: Steven Lopez, who was the sixth member of the group now known as the Exonerated Five.
Faced with the likely prospect of conviction for a rape he didn’t commit, Steven pled guilty to robbing a different jogger. But in light of all the facts and circumstances, his plea was not voluntary. All the evidence connecting him to the rape was discredited. Someone else actually confessed and his confession was corroborated by DNA evidence. I personally stood up in court to vacate his conviction and it was one of the most meaningful things I have had the privilege to do as District Attorney.
Recently, we vacated almost 200 misdemeanor convictions tied to eight former NYPD officers who were convicted of crimes related to their law enforcement duties. In each of these cases, officers who played material roles were convicted of crimes, including lying under oath, falsifying evidence, accepting bribes and even stealing and selling the service weapons of fellow officers. We could not stand behind these convictions.
We know that the collateral consequences of convictions are significant. We also know that building trust in our system required us to do the right thing here, and that is what we did.
I will briefly highlight just a few of the initiatives included in our new needs requests and why they are so important at this time. I have submitted a summary of my budgetary requests as an addendum to my testimony.
WORKER PROTECTION UNIT
Cornell University calculates that workers in New York State lose about $1 billion each year to wage theft. Wage theft impacts more than 10,000 workers annually, many of whom are making minimum wage or not much more.
My Office is determined to put workers first, and to hold accountable anyone who steals their hard-earned wages.
That’s why last month, we announced the creation of the Manhattan D.A.’s Office’s first-ever Worker Protection Unit. With this new unit, we will significantly expand our focus beyond our existing work in the construction and real estate development industries to include other industries with high rates of worker exploitation and wage theft —which often impacts our city’s immigrant workforce, including but not limited to:
- Home healthcare agencies
- Fast food chains and restaurants
- Hotels and hospitality
- Cleaning and janitorial services
The Unit will also enforce workplace safety laws, building on the work of our Construction Fraud Task Force, and pursue charges when an employer creates dangerous or deadly work environments.
We know that prosecutions alone may not be enough to make workers whole. We are committed to helping workers not only by prosecuting cases, but by working to recoup stolen wages. That’s where our new Stolen Wage Fund comes in. With $100,000 in seed money seized during investigations into big banks, we’re creating a fund that will allow us to pay stolen wages to workers who didn’t receive restitution from a criminal prosecution.
Importantly, the Unit will work alongside our Community Partnerships, Immigrant Affairs, and Witness Aid Services Units, as well as community-based organizations and consulates, to encourage reporting by vulnerable and under-served populations.
Our laws and our practice must remain focused on the workers and reflect the value they bring to New York City. This will always be a city built on hard work, and our strength is our people. We will continue to make sure workers are treated fairly, and bad faith employers who violate the laws are held accountable for their crimes.
In order to do that, we need to hire two ADAs, two analysts, and two interpreters to fully staff this unit. We estimate this will cost $625,821 per year.
HOUSING AND TENANT PROTECTION UNIT
When I took office as Manhattan District Attorney, I promised to deliver housing justice by creating a dedicated unit to focus on prosecuting deceptive and abusive practices by landlords. We delivered on that promise by creating the Office’s first-ever Housing and Tenant Protection Unit.
The creation of this unit is a recognition that safe and affordable housing is a public safety issue. Housing instability is directly connected to poverty, homelessness, and crime.
And today, we have reached a tipping point in the housing crisis. Median rents in Manhattan have reached an all-time high. A lack of affordable housing options has put tenants in a vulnerable position, and many unscrupulous landlords are looking to take advantage.
To counter this, our new unit will take a targeted approach to investigating systemic, structured and organized criminal activity among landlords and developers. That means:
- Prosecutions of landlords responsible for continued patterns of harassment against multiple tenants
- In-depth investigations into potential fraud of government programs by landlords and developers
- Continued protection of Manhattanites against deed theft and deed fraud
These issues are pervasive. Residents, especially in rent stabilized units, often face hazardous living conditions, because landlords want them out so they can raise rents.
Some of the specific issues we look for are:
- A sustained lack of heat in the wintertime
- Lead paint
- Hazardous construction that makes living impossible. We know of one example where an entire staircase was removed.
- Deliberately withholding repairs
- Financial and tax fraud
Our targeted strategy makes full use of additional criminal penalties for harassing rent regulated tenants passed by the New York State Legislature in 2020, which specifically allow law enforcement to investigate and prosecute harassment that is a “systematic ongoing course of conduct.”
This unit is currently staffed by a Unit Chief and a Housing Coordinator, and ADAs across our Trial Bureaus will be specifically cross-designated to handle these cases. However, we need additional resources and staff to address the types of complaints and cases we are receiving, including two investigators, two analysts, and two paralegals. We anticipate needing $459,880 to fully fund this unit each year.
I cannot understate the critical work that our team of 31 dedicated staff members in our Witness Aid Services Unit do every day to support some of our most vulnerable community members, and to promote public safety in Manhattan. This unit ensures that crime victims, witnesses, and their families can access the services they need to address their trauma and rebuild their lives, while also helping them navigate New York’s complex court system. All these efforts help make us safer: by ensuring victims participate in court processes they help hold those who commit crimes accountable for their actions, and by addressing trauma they help prevent future criminality. However, WASU is above all survivor-centered, so we do not require people seeking assistance to testify. Safety primarily comes from addressing people’s trauma.
WASU provides a variety of court-related services, social services, and counseling services designed to meet the needs of crime victims, witnesses, and their families. The Unit also provides information related to the prosecution of the case, assists victims in understanding the criminal justice system, and provides information regarding crime victims’ rights.
The Unit helps victims overcome the emotional trauma resulting from a crime, and provides advocacy and support throughout the criminal justice process.
Since I took office last year, with an emphasis on centering survivors in Special Victims cases, internal referrals to WASU have increased by 200%.
This means that my office can
- Ensure that all victims, witnesses, and families have a trauma-informed advocacy team to support their experience with the prosecutorial process.
- Increase survivors’ access to safety services, resources, referrals, and emotional support in an effort to rebuild lives and restore hope.
- Ensure that victims, witnesses, and families are informed, feel heard, and have a voice in the criminal justice process.
In addition to its work within the Office, the Witness Aid Services Unit also conducts outreach to community members throughout Manhattan to offer services and spread awareness through
- Presentations to the NYPD, college campuses, community partners
- Trainings at the Manhattan Family Justice Center
- Participation in community coalitions such as the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims
- Accompaniments to hospitals for bedside client services/support
- Collaboration with the Community Partnerships Unit
In my second year in office, and continuing through the future, we want to increase WASU’s reach by adding seven Victim Services Advocates, six Counselors, one Senior Counselor, and one Senior Advocate. This will expand our counseling capacity and connect more individuals to relevant services to help them through their most difficult times. We expect this expansion to cost $1,117,200 per year.
It is impossible to overstate how dramatically discovery reform has impacted our practice. The volume of discovery material that we must produce and the timeline for producing it remains a huge issue for my office. Last year, the Office dismissed approximately 1,800 cases because we couldn’t meet our discovery burden. Among the most commonly dismissed prosecutions are misdemeanor domestic violence cases and cases involving repeat offenders, which involve gathering more material in an extremely short timeframe, even though much of it is duplicative or irrelevant.
In a system that should favor fair processes for both defendants and victims, paperwork technicalities should not lead to dismissals.
We need significantly more resources to help our office, the other D.A.’s offices, and our colleagues in the defense bar meet our discovery obligations. My office also developed a set of proposed technical changes to the discovery law that would both enhance public safety by allowing cases to progress more efficiently, and protect the rights of the accused. But regardless of any possible legislative fix, we are requesting $13 million this year to help address this issue and provide us the technology to do our work effectively.
With your help, and in partnership with the Mayor, the 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.