Federal Defenders calls for reform in the wake of the Eric Garner case


The Federal Defenders of New York wishes to express its condolences to the Garner family and join the criticism of the grand jury process that followed his killing.   

As a public defense organization concerned about the overuse of criminal sanctions, we are always reluctant to criticize a decision not to prosecute.  But we are also deeply concerned about disparate treatment within the criminal justice system.  The vast majority of our clients are poor people of color.  When they are charged with crimes in the federal system, the grand jury proceedings are typically brief and often based on second and third hand accounts of the alleged offense.  Evidence that might suggest innocence is rarely presented.  In the New York State system, while the defendant has a right to testify (unlike the federal system), the typical grand jury proceeding is similarly brief and one-sided, and when a defendant does testify he is almost always vigorously cross-examined. 

That process stands in stark contrast to what often happens when police officers are investigated for criminal conduct while acting in their official capacity.  Although we may never know the details of the grand jury proceeding in Staten Island, it seems that prosecutors presented a lengthy case that included far more defense-friendly evidence than usual.  We would welcome such treatment for all criminal suspects.  But we are strongly opposed to selectively providing it only to law enforcement.

Race and class continue to drive much of what happens in both the state and federal criminal justice systems.  Poor people and poor people of color remain shockingly overrepresented in our nation’s prisons.   The killing of Eric Garner and the official response to it highlight the reality that certain favored classes receive preferential treatment from police and prosecutors.  That reality needs to change.

Two places to start in the wake of the killing of Mr. Garner are the grand jury process and the policing of low-level offenses.  With respect to grand juries, we need greater and more neutral oversight of a process that has become a willing tool for prosecutors when they desire an indictment and a method for escaping accountability when they don’t.  As for so-called “Broken Windows” policing, we need to reexamine what has become an institutionalized method for over-policing poor people.  It results in the needless clogging of our courts and jails and the unnecessary instigation of violent confrontation with non-violent citizens.  And the supposed benefits of this policing, lower crime and increased public safety, are not nearly so clear cut as law enforcement officials claim.  Many other jurisdictions and countries have seen drops in crime comparable to that of New York City without the use of such police tactics.    

We hope the tragedy of Eric Garner will prompt a much needed examination of our criminal justice system and provide a catalyst for real and lasting reform.