To the Editors:
A contest of more than local interest is taking place for District Attorney of New York County. The decision of the current District Attorney, Frank Hogan, to run for a ninth term has been greeted with deep regret by many of us who have respected his thirty-two years of distinguished service. The challenger is Bill vanden Heuvel, who has broad experience as both a private and public attorney and who has served as chairman of the New York City Board of Correction since the Tombs riots of 1970.
Mr. vanden Heuvel’s investigation into prison suicides, published in a widely praised study called Death of a Citizen, was the impetus for the fundamental prison reform that is now underway in New York City. Mr. Hogan has disparaged Bill vanden Heuvel’s experience in the prisons as an inappropriate training ground for a District Attorney. He is wrong. Unless a District Attorney sees the injustice so tragically reflected in the prisons—the way we manufacture crime—he will not understand the wholesale failure of the criminal justice system and what changes are needed to make it capable of reducing crime and violence.
There were 94,000 felony arrests in New York City in 1971. Only 552 of those arrests went to trial, with more than 25 percent resulting in verdicts of acquittal. Only 7,000 of the 94,000 arrests resulted in felony convictions, generally by the defendant entering a plea to charges substantially less than those on which he was arrested. Those statistics show the nearly total failure of the present system of criminal justice to promote safety, freedom, or fairness. Criminal justice is no longer a process assuring fair, effective, and efficient enforcement of the law. It is a poorly functioning system and the District Attorney is the administrator. More than any other person, he influences and coordinates the police, the courts, the legal representatives of the indigent, the prisons, and the parole system.
Bill vanden Heuvel has courageously challenged the present operation of criminal justice. For example, he has pointed to the existing bail system, in which money is the dominant criterion of whether people will be jailed, as a tax on freedom which only the poor cannot afford. Among the results are lost jobs, broken families, school dropouts, more crime. He has shown how overcrowding in such detention prisons as the Tombs can be reduced intelligently and inexpensively by pretrial diversion programs relying on supervision by community agencies. Notwithstanding the District Attorney’s opposition, he has demanded speedy trial rules as a fundamental Constitutional right and because they are an essential deterrent to crime.
From the vantage point of the prison. Mr. vanden Heuvel has been able to see what narcotics have done to the city’s safety, as well as its legal system. Unless the prisons can classify and treat the addict and assure his release to a monitored treatment program, his arrest and conviction become deceptive statistics. Under Bill vanden Heuvel’s leadership, the Board of Correction has been forcing the city prisons to recognize their responsibility to treat addicts.
Mr. vanden Heuvel has also led the board’s efforts to show how the mentally disturbed are confined and then released without proper direction or concern; how Spanish-speaking defendants are tried and imprisoned by a system they often cannot comprehend; how crimes of violence are carelessly classified and handled; how prisons for adolescents themselves violate the law; how the isolation of the criminal justice system from the community has exacerbated its problems; how the disparities in sentencing and the secrecy of parole procedures have left profound grievances that no prison can confine.
None of these is a problem that will be solved easily or quickly, but the possibility of change is the hope of this election. Bill vanden Heuvel’s “crusading challenge,” as the New York Post described it in urging Mr. Hogan’s retirement, deserves the support of all of us who believe that the rule of law and social stability and justice are interdependent, that we will know all or none.
Those who would like to join me in supporting this campaign can write or send contributions to: New Yorkers for vanden Heuvel, c/o Ramsey Clark, 16 West 57 Street, New York, New York 10019.