Last Updated on Tuesday, 6 March 2018, 12:18 by Denis Chabrol
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, together with New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neil and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Tuesday announced the launch of a pre-arraignment diversion program to assist individuals who suffer from drug dependency and misuse.
Under Project CLEAR (Collaborative Legal Engagement Assistance Response), individuals arrested for misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance will be offered the opportunity to receive treatment and other community-based services before their initial court appearance. If they meaningfully participate, the DA’s Office will decline prosecution of their cases before they ever appear in court and their arrest record will be sealed.
District Attorney Gonzalez said, “In the face of a growing opioid epidemic, we must look for new ways to assist those who are drug dependent. Often, prosecuting individuals who are arrested with small amounts of narcotics, used to feed their habits, does little to help them. By offering tools that aid in treating their addiction and could prevent a potential overdose, Project Brooklyn CLEAR can save lives and send people on the road to recovery. I would like to thank all of our partners who worked to bring this program to Brooklyn and hope that, together, we will make strides in stemming this crisis.”
Commissioner O’Neill said, “Redirecting eligible, low-level narcotics offenders towards treatment and other community-based services is one way the NYPD and other city agencies are working together to prevent overdose deaths and save lives. Saving lives is the NYPD’s top priority.”
Speaker Johnson said, “Drug addiction has destroyed the lives of too many New Yorkers and their families. Instead of punishing those struggling with addiction, we must help put them on the path to recovery. With the establishment of CLEAR, the City will address drug addiction, like the opioid epidemic, as a public health crisis and offer treatment to those suffering from substance abuse, instead of criminal prosecution. This Council is proud to stand with the District Attorney and the NYPD, and we thank them for working with us in taking steps to make the criminal justice system more fair. The New York City Council is proud to have worked with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and the NYPD to launch this innovative programming.”
The District Attorney said that Project CLEAR is modeled after the HOPE program that was successfully implemented in Staten Island about a year ago. In Brooklyn, it was launched last monthas a pilot in six Brooklyn South precincts that experience high overdose rates: the 60thPrecinct (Coney Island), 61st Precinct (Sheepshead Bay), 62nd Precinct (Bensonhurst, Gravesend), 68th Precinct (Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge), 71st Precinct (Prospect -Lefferts Gardens, Crown Heights) and 72nd Precinct (Sunset Park).
There were 84 overdose fatalities in these six precincts last year, according to preliminary NYPD data, representing a third of the total overdose deaths in Brooklyn during 2017 (which stood at 251). In addition, about 57% of the saves using naloxone nasal spray last year (189 out of 333) took place in these precincts. Based on last year’s arrest numbers, over 700 people annually will be eligible for CLEAR during its pilot phase.
Under CLEAR, individuals arrested on misdemeanor charges of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree (PL 220.03) and eligible for a DAT (desk appearance ticket) will have the opportunity to resolve their cases by receiving services rather than appearing in court if they comply with assessment-based recommendations.
When the NYPD determines the individual is eligible, they will call the Brooklyn DA’s Office and receive a return date for the DAT – typically within seven days of arrest instead of the traditional 30. The DA’s Office will then notify the EAC Network which will dispatch a Peer Recovery Coach to meet the individual at the precinct. Peers are non-law enforcement personnel who are trained to assist those challenged by drug misuse. They will encourage the individual to be assessed by EAC Network within seven days. They will also provide a naloxone kit and instructions on its proper use. If necessary, the peer can provide immediate access to detoxification services.
Arrested individuals can decline to participate and opt to make the scheduled court appearance on the return date seven days later and the cases will be traditionally prosecuted. If they agree to an assessment within seven days, the cases will be postponed for a 30-day period, during which the individuals will be encouraged to meaningfully engage in services that were offered based on the assessment. The assessments will be performed at the offices of EAC Network, a social service agency.
If the individual complies with their recommendations within 30 days, the DA’s Office will be notified and exercise its prosecutorial discretion by formally declining to prosecute the arrest. The arrested individual will not have to appear in court and the arrest record will be sealed. Throughout the process, The Legal Aid Society will be available to assist both those who participate and those who opted not to participate in the program – a decision that will have no effect on the disposition of their cases.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said, “I applaud District Attorney Gonzalez for changing our approach to enforcing drug possession laws and his embrace of strong partnerships to address substance use as a health issue. The CLEAR program will help New Yorkers who need health services get care instead of punishment.”
EAC Network said, “Brooklyn CLEAR is an innovative solution to the heroin epidemic that is plaguing our communities. The partnership between the police, the DA, EAC Network and community partners will allow participants to be connected to services without the trauma of going through the system.”
Dawn Ryan, Attorney-In-Charge of the Brooklyn Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said, “We laud this announcement from Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez that prioritizes treatment over incarceration. Our clients and others suffering from addiction are best served from diversion programs that lead to self-sustaining lives. Addiction should be met with compassion not prosecution. The Legal Aid Society implores New York City’s other District Attorneys to take notice of these effective and progressive alternatives.”
Council Member Mark Treyger said, “CLEAR is an innovative, synergetic approach to solving the problem of substance misuse, which increasingly threatens the health and well-being of New Yorkers. I commend District Attorney Gonzalez, Commissioner O’Neill and Speaker Johnson for prioritizing treatment and preventative measures rather than punishment, helping encourage recovery, end drug dependency and save lives.”
Council Member Justin Brannan said, “I am grateful to see the precincts that cover Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach are three of the six in Brooklyn to be part of the pilot for the CLEAR program in Brooklyn. It’s time we step in and look for long term solutions to our drug and opioid crisis in our neighborhoods. Instead of incarceration and a criminal record, this will be a meaningful step in helping those with substance abuse. A similar program is working in Staten Island and I expect it will be a success here in Brooklyn as well.”
Council Member Mathieu Eugene, “The launch of Project Brooklyn CLEAR is a critical step in the city’s ability to rehabilitate low level drug offenders. We have a moral responsibility to help those whose lives have been impacted by the ravages of drug abuse. This program will provide much needed mentorship and a path towards redemption for individuals who face imprisonment, while also creating safer and more welcoming neighborhoods for our families. It is my hope that this program will be beneficial to all parties who are working diligently to prevent drug abuse in our city.”
The District Attorney thanked the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office and DA Michael McMahon for their assistance and cooperation.
He also thanked the New York City Council for allocating resources, as well as the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the NYPD, EAC Network and VOCAL-NY, one of the service providers that will engage in harm reduction services, for their partnership in this program. The District Attorney thanked Phoenix House for its support.
Brooklyn CLEAR is being directed by Senior Assistant District Attorney Karen Varriale, of the District Attorney’s Drug Treatment Unit, under the supervision of Assistant District Attorney David Heslin, Unit Chief, and the overall supervision of Jill Harris, Policy and Strategy Counsel, and Renee Gregory, First Assistant District Attorney.