Note: The following is an expanded version of a letter published in the July 11, 2012, issue of PAW.
In his article “Criminal injustice: A view inside the courtroom” (Perspective, April 25), Benjamin West ’01 addresses race and the New York Police Department’s enforcement and crime-prevention methods, a subject of active debate in government and the media. We encourage PAW readers to consider Mr. West’s insights on these topics in context, as his experiences represent just one side of the criminal-justice equation: that of a public defender.
Mr. West refers to selected statistics in support of his discussion of race and the NYPD. But when his discussion shifts to a rebuke of the practices of the district attorney’s office that handles his clients’ cases – the office where we work as prosecutors – his claims are wholly unsupported and, in a number of instances, simply false. It is this subject that we seek to address.
Of utmost concern to us is Mr. West’s belief that we and our fellow assistant district attorneys have failed to “hold fast to [our] more idealistic motivations for becoming prosecutors.” Like Mr. West, our fellow ADAs have forgone the possibility of far more lucrative private employment for the opportunity to actively seek justice for victims and to help protect our society from the blight of crime. Our co-workers make this sacrifice willingly, and it is clear that the commitment to the principles that motivated all of us to join the office does not fade with age.
Lost in Mr. West’s rhetoric of a “broken system” is the truth that we and our colleagues are keenly aware of the social circumstances in which defendants, victims, and witnesses find themselves. Indeed, we are urgently concerned with ensuring just outcomes for all parties. Furthermore, there is no “career advancement … linked to convictions,” as Mr. West falsely asserts. We are distressed to learn that he labors under this mistaken belief, and we are horrified by his baseless claim that “doing justice becomes a secondary goal” in the district attorney’s office. This does grave offense to the good, justice-minded individuals with whom we work every day.
Mr. West is not wrong when he observes that courtrooms in New York City are “packed with black and Latino men and women waiting to see the judge,” a reality that is indeed cause for concern. But it is equally concerning that the majority of crime victims are members of minority groups, and any commentary on race in the criminal-justice system must take this sad truth into consideration as well. Like Mr. West, we look forward to a day in New York City when both the commission of crime and victimization by crime bear no relation to the color of one’s skin.
Today, however, when an innocent man is robbed at gunpoint, when a defenseless woman is beaten by her husband, and when an open-air drug market ravages a neighborhood, our focus is not on the race of the defendants, but rather on achieving justice for the defendants’ acts and the effects those acts have on the defendants’ victims and their communities. These are the ends that motivate our work.
(While we are members of the New York County District Attorney's Office, the views expressed are our own.)