The Bronx is Combining Accountability and Rehabilitation

Darcel Clark

March 16, 2023

How New York’s most violent borough is approaching crime in 2023

How New York’s most violent borough is approaching crime in 2023

On a hot day in June 2021, two children cowered in terror on a sidewalk as a man stood inches away firing a dozen gunshots at another man. A surveillance camera captured the incident, and it became a viral benchmark of brutality. This incident in the Bronx epitomized the erupting frustrations that sparked gun violence once the COVID-19 quarantine period was lifted.

My office’s immediate violence response plan paired outreach to victims, including those who were uncooperative, with intensive pre-arrest investigation. That led to an expeditious prosecution of a crime that left a young man partially paralyzed along with two children — a sister and brother — indelibly traumatized., The gunman was imprisoned for 15 years. 

Conversely, on Jan. 10, 2023, nine young men stood in Bronx Supreme Court before a judge to hear their felony gun possession charges dismissed, in a poignant “graduation” from a demanding, year-long program, our Bronx Osborne Gun Accountability and Prevention (BOGAP) program. 

There was risk involved in providing an opportunity for these young men. In the end, they restored our faith in them and our outlook for the future, and nine lives were enhanced by programming centered on gun accountability.

This is what we want criminal justice to look like in the Bronx. Here, justice should require compassion and accountability while prioritizing community safety.

The Bronx has less than a fifth of the city’s population, but it accounts for a third of its violent crime. The borough suffers from endemic poverty, which is linked to complex challenges in housing, education and health care.

Yet, this community exemplifies resilience, courage and determination.

Our community deserves to be safe, with a fair and efficient criminal justice system focused on people first and foremost. 

During the past three years, the Bronx has endured shootings and other violent crimes at a pace not seen in decades.

When we understand the root causes of criminal conduct based on real experiences, we are better positioned to advocate for resources that will prevent people from entering the criminal justice system. Further, it is our responsibility to provide intervention when people start walking down the wrong path. 

I was here in the 1980s and ’90s as an assistant district attorney when my beloved borough was ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic.

I was here at the start of the new millennium as a judge when the city experienced a renaissance, wherein our neighborhoods were thriving. 

Soon after, I became district attorney in the thick of the opioid epidemic. My office targeted traffickers and we began a pioneering program for long-term heroin and opioid addicts who were cycling through the criminal justice system.

While intervention and treatment have provided a wellspring of hope for change, currently, there are new challenges. During the past three years, the Bronx has endured shootings and other violent crimes at a pace not seen in decades.

The surge of violence in the summer of 2020 came amid a perfect storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the social fabric. Young people who were removed from vital community resources emerged from the quarantine period with scores to settle.

The Raise the Age law provided a welcome change to the criminal justice system. However, there were unintended consequences to public safety endangering the very youths it was meant to help. Under the statute, it requires a defendant to “display a gun,” not simply possess it, for a case to remain in Criminal Court. As a result, young people with gun possession cases are routinely sent to Family Court.

In fact, an 18-year-old was arrested for murder in the Bronx with four open gun cases that were pending in Family Court. Ultimately, we have seen teens with multiple gun cases in Family Court who were not appropriately held accountable ending up fatally shot or continuing the cycle of violence.

Last year, out of the 484 shooting victims in the Bronx, 56 were 17 years old or younger. Thirty-one defendants charged with a shooting were 17 or younger. 

I continue to advocate for an adjustment to the Raise the Age law to allow gun possession cases to remain in Criminal Court, where we can provide accountability that ranges from services to incarceration.

It is clear that gun violence in our community has not grabbed the nation’s attention because the devastation is incremental, and the victims and the shooters are largely minorities. Nonetheless, the carnage and trauma left in its wake are consequential.

We must be far more creative, doing everything possible to stop gun violence.

Our long-term strategic plan for violence prevention, reduction and intervention is called P.E.A.C.E., which stands for Precision Enforcement and Community Engagement.

We are present within the community standing alongside our residents; marching through neighborhoods that endured multiple shootings; and working with Cure Violence and Violence Intervention groups in a grassroots engagement.

Our veteran prosecutors consider the whole person when evaluating a gun possession case. Their evaluation takes into account circumstances that indicate whether the gun possession demonstrates an intent to use it in a crime.

We meet with youth in our community, discussing the issues that drive violent crime, asking what the youth want and what resources clergy, law enforcement and other stakeholders can provide. 

We started the Saturday Night Lights (SNL) program, which we have at two locations. Now, with the city’s management, there are 31 gyms and community centers where kids play basketball or soccer, or dance or hone computer skills in a safe environment. 

The precision enforcement component employs “intelligence-driven” prosecution guided by our Crime Strategies Bureau, to pinpoint where the most shootings occur, understand the motivations for violence, and identify the small subset of individuals who are responsible for a significant portion of the violence are prosecuted to the fullest extent.

The Crime Strategies Bureau, Homicide Bureau, Violent Criminal Enterprise Bureau and Trial Division work in tandem and collaborate by conducting bi-weekly meetings to review homicides and shootings. 

Our goal is to have ADAs to respond to non-fatal shootings in hotspots, to prepare evidence-based prosecutions, and to investigate each act of violence as if it were a homicide since many victims are uncooperative.

The Crime Victims Assistance Bureau coordinates with our detective investigators to perform early outreach to victims of non-fatal shootings, to offer comprehensive services to them and their families to address the trauma of the shooting. Our support for victims and witnesses may engender more cooperation from the community, but cooperation is not required to receive services.

Our veteran prosecutors consider the whole person when evaluating a gun possession case. Their evaluation takes into account circumstances that indicate whether the gun possession demonstrates an intent to use it in a crime. We understand our community and circumstances where a second chance is appropriate, where prison would not serve a purpose. 

Toward this end, we developed the aforementioned BOGAP program with the Osborne Association. It includes therapy, counseling, education and job assistance for those individuals charged with gun possession who do not have a prior conviction for a violent felony offense. The treatment within BOGAP gets to the heart of why the person carried a gun, and why they should never pick one up again. The Fortune Society also provides a program centered on gun accountability.

In 2021, violent crime in the Bronx was the highest of any county in the state, and violent crime per capita was at a higher rate than in Atlanta, Chicago and New York City as a whole.

Last year, homicides, shootings and shooting victims decreased by double digits. We are redoubling our efforts to stay the course to a continued crime reduction in 2023. But the numbers, no matter how low, cannot encapsulate the staggering consequences to the flesh, blood and soul of the Bronx community.