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Queens DA aims to continue downturn in boro crime

While the judicial system has helped southeast Queens reduce crime over the past decade, more work must be done to reform the Rockefeller drug laws and educate prisoners, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown told a meeting of Community Board 12 last week.

Brown, who has served as the borough's DA for more than 11 years, said he has seen a transformation in Queens, thanks in part to tougher punishment against violent felons and large drug seizures keeping the narcotics off the streets.

"The whole southeast Queens area - St. Albans and Cambria Heights, in particular - are very near and dear to me personally because this was where I was brought up," Brown said at the Jan. 15 meeting. "There are many, many reasons why we've come as far as we've come. We're smarter in the way we handle criminal activity."

In Brown's first year as district attorney, he handled more than 650 homicide cases and 52,000 reports of stolen cars. Last year there were fewer than 100 murders and 8,800 cars reported stolen, he said.

"We do a lot of work these days preventing crimes," he said. "We pay a lot of attention to what's going on in the county."

Among crime prevention techniques such as interagency cooperation, stiffer parole laws help keep violent criminals behind bars, he added.

"Its safer mostly because the laws changed so dramatically in the early '90s," Brown said. "We've effectively taken violent criminals off the streets."

But there is always more to do, including reforming the Rockefeller drug laws, which can impose harsh jail terms on repeat drug offenders, and prison programs, which allow inmates to get an education or job training, Brown said.

As counsel to Gov. Hugh Carey in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brown opposed the Rockefeller law, with the support of the law enforcement community, he said. And while the punishments seem to unfairly punish people charged with relatively minor drug offenses, especially when the law was first enforced, the prison sentences have become more balanced, Brown said.

"You've got 600 people statewide in jail under the 15-to-life sentence," he said. "The vast majority of them are there because they are violent felons. We don't have the kind of inequity that we had in the 1970s."

Nevertheless, reforms are still necessary to ensure fair penalties are granted in all cases, he said, emphasizing reform and not repeal is what is needed.

"I don't want to see us go back to the days when kids are going to school in the morning stepping over crack vials," Brown said. "Southeast Queens was hit very hard by the drug culture."

But changes are also needed in prison programs to allow the inmates to better themselves, said Community Board member Kevin Riley.

"It seems to me that the education component has been defunded completely," Riley said. "It leans towards enforcement and not reform."

While Brown said there are some programs such as drug treatment courts, which allow addicts to seek help shaking their habits rather than face jail time, but little is in place inside the facilities to help inmates, he said.

"We need more help in our institutions," Brown said. "We need to be certain that a person is equipped to meet his day-to-day obligations."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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