From his office high atop Jay Street in Brooklyn’s judicial center, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez sees the many people coming to and from the courthouses: the crime victims seeking justice, the lawyers arguing for justice, and the judges administering justice.
But just as clearly, Gonzalez sees the criminals. People who, he believes, often are inherently decent and, with the right treatment, can become productive members of society. People for whom “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” crime-fighting policies have resulted in tragically lost souls that could have been rehabilitated and saved. People for whom a compassionate brand of justice would improve not only their own lives, but those of their families and communities as well.
In an interview with Hamodia, Gonzalez discusses his Justice 2020 initiative, his belief in rehabilitation, and his efforts to combat a recent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.
A Lifelong Ambition
Eric Gonzalez has had just one employer since graduating from Michigan Law School in 1995. The boy from Brooklyn, who says it was his “lifelong ambition to be a prosecutor,” has held a number of jobs, but they’ve all been in one capacity or another in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.
He has served as first a junior and then a senior assistant in several of the office’s bureaus, including special victims, domestic violence, and trial bureaus, and was eventually promoted to one of the five trial chiefs.
By 2014, Gonzalez, a high-level adviser to then-DA Kenneth Thompson, was heavily involved in implementing several of the latter’s key initiatives, including the office policy of declining to prosecute marijuana-possession cases, and the expansion of the Conviction Review Unit.
On October 4, 2016, just three years after taking office, Thompson announced that he had been suffering from cancer and named Gonzalez as acting district attorney while he sought treatment. Five days later, the 50-year-old Thompson died. Gonzalez remained acting DA, and in November 2017 he made history as the first Latino to win election as a district attorney in New York state.
Having spent nearly a quarter-century around the same people in the same building, it’s perhaps not surprising that the man who is now boss of the office still prefers to simply be called “Eric.”
Gonzalez has continued and expanded on Thompson’s programs, as he seeks to make the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office what his website proudly describes as “a national model of what a progressive prosecutor’s office can be.”
Thompson “really showed me that as district attorney, we can continue to operate the way we’ve operated for many, many years, and basically and fundamentally do the same things over and over, or we could try new things to help increase the sense of safety and fairness and the scope of the office,” Gonzalez says. “He taught me a lot that the DA can and should do, more than simply process arrests. That we should be thinking about how we’re improving the lives of the people we serve.”
Both those who are victims of crimes, and those arrested for crimes.
“Most people who come into our criminal-justice system are ordinary people who get arrested,” Gonzalez says. “They have families. They’re members of the community, and they’ve made a mistake, they’ve committed a crime. But they return to our community, so we have to figure out how to deal with them.
“There are truly some people that come across our desk who are not fit to live among us and need to be incapacitated. But I see in every community that I serve as the DA that there are good people who do dumb things and get arrested. And what the community wants is fairness.”
A key component of Gonzalez’s reforms is his Justice 2020 program. Comprised of academics, activists, communal and religious leaders, as well as officials in police unions and prosecutors’ offices, the Justice 2020 committee’s 17 “action points” were released in March. They include having the DA’s office “consider non-jail resolutions at every juncture of a case,” “divert youth from the criminal justice system,” “develop new protocols for investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct to improve accountability and transparency,” and “identify high-risk individuals early and explore early interventions to deter violent behavior.”
“I was elected because I promised to do two things,” says Gonzalez. “I promised to keep Brooklyn safe, but also to work towards restoring trust in our justice system.
“And Justice 2020 allows me to do both, because it focuses on figuring out other responses to criminal activity besides jail — mental health, drug treatment, social services that people need to get back on track. It’s meant to re-engage communities.”
The Justice 2020 action points also include offering pre-plea alternatives for all drug-possession charges, as Gonzalez believes that in the war on drugs, “the model of enforcement should go towards therapy and treatment.”
He says his view was significantly impacted by the case of a particular Orthodox Jewish girl. She had once overdosed and been revived, and had gone for therapy. “She said to her parents, ‘I almost died from this, and yet I can’t beat my addiction,’” says Gonzalez, as his voice catches and he pauses to compose himself. The girl eventually relapsed, overdosed, and died.
The girl’s father met with Gonzalez and pushed him to use a treatment, rather than imprisonment, model. “If my daughter could not beat or fight her addiction under the fear of death, the fear of getting arrested wasn’t going to change that,” the grieving man told the DA.
Under the newly implemented Brooklyn Clear program, when someone is arrested for a drug charge, the DA’s office sends a counselor to the police station, who offers to work with the suspect and offer treatment and counseling, and have the criminal charges dismissed.
“The goal was to treat drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal-justice issue,” Gonzalez says. “The goal was to make sure people didn’t get criminal records that prevent them from pursuing education and health. But also the goal was saving lives. Because if you have a family member or a loved one who’s using, and you think that they may kill themselves using these drugs, you can’t call the police unless you really believe in that tough love. Because you know that they’re going to go to jail.
“And if you’re an Orthodox person, can you really call the police and ask that your child be sent to Rikers Island while they’re looking for a bed to get them therapy? Most people would say no. So I think I’m saving lives [by treating drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal issue], because you know you can get help and the DA is not going to prosecute.”
Safety and Compassion
“Is there any fear at all that any of your policies might make New York less safe?” I ask. “Because there are those who are going to argue that.”
“They’ve argued that with Stop and Frisk,” the DA replies. “They’ve argued that with marijuana. They’ve argued that fear — fear is a very powerful motivator; fear is a very powerful political tool. I think what we’ve seen in New York City is that Stop and Frisk went from hundreds of thousands to maybe a couple thousand, and the city didn’t fall apart. In fact, the city continued to get safer in terms of real violence.
“Some people think that not enforcing marijuana will lead to more crime. There’s no evidence of that in other states that have legalized marijuana. There has not been a spike of violence because marijuana has been legalized. So I think that’s a lot of fearmongering.
“What I think is really at the core of this is simply that people have a fundamental disagreement about the role of the criminal-justice system. People like myself are looking to make sure our justice system is actually in the business of improving people’s lives so that they don’t come out and commit crimes again. And then there are people who just want a punitive system, who say, ‘Don’t do the crime unless you’re willing to do the time.’
“They want this system to be harsh. I view it as these are our neighbors, these are often our family members who wind up in jail.”
But can we be compassionate without being less safe, I ask?
“Whether it’s Judaism or Christian models, there’s a role in our justice system for mercy and compassion,” Gonzalez answers. “That we believe in the rehabilitative power of people, and that if we want people to turn around, we have to invest in them.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re doing that investment in the prison context. But if we’re not going to do the investment in our schools and in our communities, at the very least, when people now have demonstrated that they can’t succeed without an intervention, we have to put in those resources.”
Gonzalez approvingly references the FIRST STEP Act, a federal prison-reform bill championed by President Donald Trump, which passed Congress last year with large bipartisan majorities. “One of the key things about the FIRST STEP Act is making sure that people who were getting ready to get released are getting all the social services they need, so they can actually re-enter successfully,” Gonzalez says. “I’m not in favor of just releasing everyone.”
In April, Gonzalez announced the creation of the first dedicated Post-Conviction Justice Bureau in the country. The Bureau includes the newly created Sealing Unit, to “encourage and facilitate applications to seal criminal convictions”; the Conviction Review Unit, which has vacated 25 convictions since it was created in 2014; and the Parole and Clemency Unit, which will now reduce probation terms and recommend first-opportunity parole releases for plea agreements.
Gonzalez is also a supporter of the Less is More Act, recently introduced in the state Legislature. He describes it as, “When people are on parole, everything doesn’t need to be punitive. In fact, you can actually reward them when they’re doing well. You can give them earned time credit — if they’re doing things to improve their lives, to stay out of trouble, we should be rewarding it.”
“At least that’s the way I raise my children,” says the father of three boys. “There are strict rules. But there are also some rewards built into parenthood.”
Fighting Hate Crimes
Though violent-crime rates citywide are generally decreasing, a specific area of increase is in hate crimes, with anti-Semitic motivations chief among them. According to the NYPD, there were 82 anti-Semitically motivated hate crimes from the beginning of 2019 through April 28, compared with 45 in the same period last year. In both periods, the hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitism total more than the number of all other hate crimes combined.
Gonzalez says that a portion of the rise in hate-crime stats is attributable to increased encouragement for victims to report hate crimes. But he also believes there has in fact been an increase in anti-Semitic attacks.
“To me, that is crystal-clear,” he says. “The rhetoric that you see, politically and otherwise, is engendering a lot of hard feelings. I believe that many of our leaders add to this problem.”
Declining to name specific politicians, Gonzalez simply says, “I’m referring to both conservatives and liberals. They’ve added to the causes of anti-Semitism by the way they speak on issues. They make it very divisive and divided. They’re not looking to unite people,” particularly noting that “it was frowned upon [by some Democrats] even to attend [the AIPAC] conference.”
“All of those things make me very concerned that we’re becoming much more divided as people. And I think that has led to some of this hate crime.”
The DA says mental illness is also a factor, noting that a number of people arrested for hate crimes have had psychiatric histories. He speaks approvingly of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray’s Thrive New York program, to assist people with getting mental-health treatment.
Gonzalez also believes that bringing youths from various communities together may help.
“Young people, from my understanding, have never been brought together in meaningful ways to have conversation and dialogue and to get to know each other,” says Gonzalez, who notes that he, a Latino who grew up in East New York and Williamsburg and attended public schools, never had a white classmate until he attended high school in Gravesend.
Hate crimes can be difficult to prove, and the question of when to add a hate element to a charge can be a tough one even for seasoned law-enforcement professionals – including the Brooklyn DA, who was the subject of a brief controversy in the matter last fall.
On October 14, Farrukh Afzal, a Pakistani immigrant with a history of violent behavior, was driving his livery vehicle in Boro Park when he tried running down one Jew, then got out of his vehicle and began beating another. When a Jewish man approached to help, Afzal began chasing that man. Witnesses also reportedly heard Afzal referencing “Israel” and “All-ah.”
Afzal was arrested and charged by the NYPD with a hate crime. But once the case was in the hands of the DA’s office, Afzal was charged with the violent crimes but without a hate element.
Many in the Jewish community and beyond were shocked by that decision. At a rally on October 17, headlined by a multi-ethnic group of communal and political leaders to protest a recent surge of assaults against Jews, a number of participants called for Afzal to be charged with a hate crime.
The next day, Gonzalez published an op-ed in Hamodia, saying that he is “committed to protecting all communities — including the Orthodox Jewish community — from hate-fueled violence and to holding those who commit hate crimes accountable,” but that his “responsibility is to bring those who commit these heinous acts to justice. Justice requires us to be deliberate, methodical, and careful. If we react at the speed of Twitter, we will undermine our ultimate goal.”
“I’ve been a prosecutor for more than 20 years,” Gonzalez wrote. “I’ve seen cases fall apart and guilty individuals acquitted when police or prosecutors rushed to bring a case when emotions were running high. I do not intend to make that mistake. I would rather take the time to do the job correctly and achieve a verdict that will stand up to scrutiny than rush to bring a politically expedient case that will not achieve justice for the victims in the long run.”
The next day, prosecutors sought, and received, a hate-crime indictment against Afzal.
On December 11, Gonzalez announced that he was creating a new Hate Crimes Bureau in his office; it had previously been a Hate Crimes Unit within the Civil Rights Bureau. Gonzalez met that day with Jewish communal leaders, and the announcement was heavily promoted to Jewish media outlets.
Some viewed this anti-hate-crimes posture as a political ploy, but Gonzalez says the new bureau was created to work closely with the NYPD specifically to avoid situations such as the aftermath of that Boro Park incident, where the Police Department and DA’s office differed, leading to public confusion and discontent.
Gonzalez notes how generally, prosecutors have to prove only two things: that a crime took place, and who committed it. But with hate crimes, prosecutors must also prove motive.
“People have no idea how difficult that really is,” he says. “It’s the invisible operation of someone’s mind. Some people make it easy for us, [like if] they’re a member of the Neo-Nazi party, [or they write] on their social media that they hate Jews. And there are other people who hold hostile and prejudiced views — but is that the reason why they committed this crime? Or was it really because two people got into a road-rage situation, or they share a driveway and they’re neighbors and they fight about, ‘Why do you keep driving your car in the middle of the night, waking my family up?’”
The fact that a victim and perpetrator are of different ethnicities doesn’t necessarily make it a hate crime, and the fact that no hateful words are spoken during its commission doesn’t necessarily make it not a hate crime.
“So you want to not rush to a judgment on these cases until you have evidence,” Gonzalez says, “because the truth is, when the police charge it as a hate crime, if the DA doesn’t, there’s the sense that the community feels maybe unprotected and unhappy.
“There have been other cases where the police say, we didn’t see from the facts of it motive of a hate crime. And then when we investigate, we get into social media, we speak to neighbors. We realize that no, actually, there is an anti-Semitic portion of this.
“So this bureau was created to work closely with the police department so we can get better decisions. They could be better trained. They can have the cultural sensitivity in making these cases, and we can be consistent in our thinking. Because the issue of the hate crime, again, is, can we prove motive? It’s not ethical or lawful for me to charge a hate crime just because I suspect it. I need to be able, when I charge it, to believe that I can get a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The (New) Role of a District Attorney
Gonzalez says he views the role of a prosecutor as “ensuring public safety and promoting fairness, trust and human dignity.”
Only time will tell whether the Brooklyn District Attorney’s new policies will work — safetywise as well as politically. For decades, those running for political office proudly declared themselves “tough on crime.” Gonzalez’s new policies, by traditional crime-fighting views, seem to discard those notions. But he believes the policies will enhance safety as well as adding fairness to the system, and that the voters will understand and appreciate that.
“We are taking bold steps and trying different approaches,” says the DA, “but, at the end of the day, our mission is to make sure that the enormous gains in public safety Brooklynites have experienced in recent years continue into the future.”