Opinion

After primary win, accountability begins for Eric Gonzalez

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez a katz/Shutterstock

Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has said he wants to make his office the most progressive in the country. We’re delighted to hear this, and our work now begins in holding him accountable.

While the general election isn’t until November, Gonzalez, who won Tuesday’s Democratic primary handily, faces no opponent in that race. In effect, this is the beginning of Gonzalez acting as our elected representative, in an office of his own.

Over the past six months, the race for Brooklyn District Attorney was, in many ways, a race to the left. It became clear that whoever prevailed, a relatively progressive district attorney, compared to most other jurisdictions around the country, would oversee the Brooklyn criminal justice system. Gonzalez ran as arguably the most moderate candidate of the bunch, but it is nevertheless unsurprising that he prevailed in Tuesday’s primary. He benefitted from being tapped by the late Ken Thompson – his immensely popular predecessor – when Thompson fell ill, enjoyed a massive get-out-the-vote and fundraising advantage, and the name recognition that came with his quasi-incumbency. Even so, his more progressive counterparts collectively garnered almost 50 percent of the votes.

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The race captured the attention of New York City in an otherwise tepid election cycle. Here and across the country, there is a growing awareness that prosecutors wield immense power. Gonzalez will oversee an office of more than 500 attorneys, who will make decisions daily regarding whether criminal charges should be brought and if bail should be set. In Kings County, these decisions will directly and indirectly impact the lives of more than 2.5 million people.

Now the clock is ticking on Gonzalez to make good on his various election promises, which included bail reform, prosecuting fewer Broken Windows offenses, charting a public health approach to drug use and reducing the number of people his office sends to Rikers Island. We hope he will steal a few ideas from his opponents, like hiring an in-house statistician to evaluate office initiatives and produce public reports.

We have good reason to keep a watchful eye. For years across New York City – including during Thompson’s tenure – we’ve seen countless instances of progressive reforms being oversold. In Brooklyn, recent news stories documented how grand policy announcements from the district attorney – one on how the office promised to handle marijuana arrests, and another on how the office handles bail – don’t always have a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of the court or on the individuals most directly impacted.

Right now, the vast majority of cases currently prosecuted by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office are for low-level crimes and violations, and nearly ninety percent of these cases are brought against people of color. Both of these realities must change. 

The public must build systems of accountability to ensure Gonzalez lives up to his progressive reputation. Courtrooms are open to the public; anyone can simply walk into arraignments at 120 Schermerhorn Street and see our justice system in action. Are all of the defendants people of color? Is the district attorney asking for bail in low-level cases that end up sending poor New Yorkers to Rikers for months awaiting trial? What crimes are being prosecuted? Do the conflicts brought before the court belong there, or in another forum? Are police officers accused of crimes given preferential treatment? Are the families of those killed by law enforcement afforded the same courtesy as other crime victims? We will be watching. 

We are under no illusions that Gonzalez will get everything right as the borough’s top law enforcement officer; the very nature of the system all but ensures that injustices will continue. But we hope to be able to support Gonzalez when he does well, to call him out when he does wrong, and continue to marshal public support to carry him to further reforms until New York can truly take its place at the vanguard of real justice for all. 

Peter Goldberg is the executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. Nick Malinowski is the civil rights campaign director for VOCAL-NY

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