Merging Vision with Policy: the Bronx District Attorney’s Office Develops “A Safer Bronx Through Fair Justice”
By Brittany Bruner, Communications Specialist for the Bureau of Justice Assistance National Training and Technical Assistance Center
The Bronx, New York community is a vibrant melting pot of individuals from many cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities. Despite the county being as large as most major cities—the Bronx has a population of roughly 1.2 million people—it has historically been under-resourced and continues to be today, including in social services and education. When District Attorney Darcel Denise Clark (DA Clark) took office in January 2016, she outlined a new vision and plan to modernize the Office of the Bronx District Attorney (Bronx DA’s Office). More specifically, DA Clark worked to reshape the Bronx’s prosecution philosophy, tackle violent crime, and fill a void for individuals who are often overlooked and under-resourced.
To help implement her strategy, DA Clark sought assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to help formalize existing policies and create additional policies that will help reform the Bronx’s criminal justice system while reducing violent crime and improving public safety. BJA NTTAC paired the Bronx DA’s Office with training and technical assistance (TTA) experts to support the release of “A Safer Bronx Through Fair Justice,” a policy guide that focuses on seeking the least restrictive means of defendant supervision and reallocating resources to better investigate and prosecute violent crime. This “smart on crime” approach is an important step to reforming the Bronx’s criminal justice system while increasing public safety.
Preparing for the Policy Development
DA Clark, along with Chief Kerry Chicon and Deputy Chief Carmen Facciolo of the Strategic Enforcement and Intergovernmental Relations Division at the Bronx DA’s Office, facilitated an internal preliminary session to create a framework for the new justice policy. This convening pulled together 30 people—including division and deputy chiefs and other staff—to discuss various topics related to criminal justice reform, such as the types of charges that should be prosecuted versus those that should be diverted. The facilitators listened to people’s opinions and encouraged participants to speak their minds and value others’ experiences. This brainstorming session prepared the facilitators to contextualize the office’s ideas for the expert-led workshop.
Organizing an Expert-led Workshop
BJA NTTAC matched the Bronx DA’s Office with two TTA providers—Beth McGarry, who served as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from 2003 to 2011 and has over 25 years of experience as a federal prosecutor, and John Skinner, former Deputy Police Commissioner and a 21-year veteran of the Baltimore, Maryland Police Department to help them develop a public policy and outline their goals. Together, they represented the valuable perspectives of prosecutors and law enforcement to help tailor the justice policy to speak to both audiences.
McGarry and Skinner built upon the Bronx DA’s Office’s preliminary discussions and facilitated an interactive workshop. They unified individuals with diverse ideas and turned their perspectives into tangible goals for the office by bringing data from other agencies and focusing the conversation around evidence-based decisionmaking. They organized the discussion into three sessions: 1) identifying misdemeanors where there will be a presumption against pursuing prosecution, 2) developing strategies to address violent crime and adopting a consistent standard of proof in charging decisions, and 3) defining policies to manage violent crime charging/disposition and developing a philosophy on loaded, unlicensed guns. The TTA providers also outlined next steps from the meeting and offered recommendations. The main goal of these sessions was to gather input and feedback for DA Clark, who ultimately made the final decisions.
McGarry and Skinner were organized and kept the group on track to make the most of their time. McGarry and Skinner also created a safe space for everyone to give their honest input and encouraged differences in opinion so that everyone could be heard, which resulted in dynamic discussions. McGarry and Skinner were ultimately able to help the group understand each other’s perspectives and opinions and DA Clark was well-suited to prepare the policy update after the workshop.
Paving the Way for a Safer Bronx
The Bronx DA’s Office’s efforts resulted in the publication of “A Safer Bronx Through Fair Justice,” which outlines the office’s approach to justice, such as focusing their efforts on promoting public safety without unnecessary confinement. It fundamentally shifts the way the Bronx DA’s Office approaches prosecution, with an emphasis on diversion and reform while making way for a greater focus on violent crime and the small number of offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
For example, the Bronx DA’s Office will not prosecute a number of low-level misdemeanors where the underlying conduct does not pose a risk to public safety and will seek pre-arraignment diversion in cases the office has determined are better handled outside of the criminal justice system, such as those involving substance use and mental health disorders. Some of these charges include simple narcotics possession, turnstile jumping, loitering, and trespassing. This allows the office to shift significant resources to violent and gun crime, drug trafficking, cases with special victims, and crime drivers—a relatively small group of people who account for the majority of violent crime in the Bronx. Through “A Safer Bronx Through Fair Justice,” DA Clark and the Bronx DA’s Office aim to create fairness in charging, plea bargaining, and disposition recommendations, and ultimately focus on facilitating successful reentry and reducing recidivism.
DA Clark and the Bronx DA’s Office continue to work hard every day to foster a vibrant and safe community where new local businesses can grow, cultural institutions can revitalize, and the Bronx can continue to thrive.
If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to justice policies, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov and we can connect you to the appropriate training, assistance, TTA partner, and/or resources.
If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.
Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.