BY RORY I. LANCMAN
The city budget is more than just dollars and cents—it is a reflection of our values. And if we value reform, we need to fund the programs and initiatives that our prosecutors are putting into place to ensure a fairer, smarter and safer criminal justice system.
Funding for our DAs is one of the many issues that the mayor and City Council have been sorting out as the Fiscal Year 2019 budget begins to take shape. The budget cycle, as outlined in the city charter, permits the mayor to release preliminary and executive budgets, and empowers the council to hold hearings to formally respond to the proposals that the mayor puts forward.
During the preliminary budget hearing in March, my committee—the Committee on the Justice System—heard testimony from the city’s five district attorneys and the special narcotics prosecutor about their budget needs for the upcoming year. The testimony made two points crystal clear: DAs’ offices are struggling to recruit and retain qualified assistant district attorneys, and DAs need additional funding in order to implement vital criminal justice reforms.
The funding shortage is particularly stark in Queens. The Queens DA’s office is home to slightly more than 300 assistant district attorneys, significantly fewer than the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, which employ more than 500 assistants each. The lack of prosecutors in Queens is not driven by public safety or a lack of cases—Queens has almost the same number of cases as the Bronx. As a result of this disparity, prosecutors in Queens are overworked and overstretched in meeting the needs of the community.
The City Council recognized the importance of the DAs’ requests in its formal response to the budget. We called for a substantial boost in funding for our DAs, so they can keep skilled assistant district attorneys on staff and spearhead new initiatives.
However, the executive budget that the mayor released at the end of April does not meet the needs that the district attorneys laid out to my committee. It provides scarce new resources for district attorneys to recruit and retain qualified assistants, and does not enable them to fully answer the call for reform.
Worse yet, Queens again finds itself on the short end of the stick. The mayor’s Fiscal Year 2019 Executive Budget allocates just $250,000 in increased funding to Queens, which is 10 times less than the additional revenue appropriated for the Bronx. That makes no sense. The Bronx DA’s office is certainly deserving of resources, but so is Queens’.
We will not let this stand. The Committee on the Justice System has called each of the district attorneys’ offices back to the City Council to testify at next week’s executive budget hearing. In doing so, we will demand that the city put forward a budget that provides our prosecutors with the funding they need to do their jobs and help reform our justice system.
Rory Lancman is the councilman for Queens’ 24th District.