Abolish the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor

“Perhaps no one and nothing else in New York City better represents the worst history of the War on Drugs than Bridget Brennan and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.” — Rory Fleming, attorney and prosecutorial reform advocate

I am running for Manhattan District Attorney because it is far past time to end the failed, unjust, and racist War on Drugs. Criminalizing entire communities does not make us safer. Drug use is a public health issue, not a criminal one, and across the country, state legislatures and District Attorneys are calling for a new approach.

Unfortunately, here in New York, the little-known and unelected Special Narcotics Prosecutor stands in the way of reforming drug policy. It’s time to abolish the position.

The Special Narcotics Prosecutor was created in 1971 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, as a precursor to the infamous drug laws that bear his name. The statute requires New York City’s district attorneys to jointly appoint one of their assistant district attorneys as the city’s “Special Narcotics Prosecutor,” the only office of its kind in the nation. This position has been continuously held by Bridget G. Brennan for the past twenty-two years. Throughout that period, Brennan has fought for “tough on crime” policies that discriminate against communities of color, even vehemently opposing the modest 2009 reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws.

Brennan uses her office as a blunt instrument to prosecute over a thousand defendants a year, securing 961 felony convictions in 2018. Just 40 defendants (4% of the total) were diverted to treatment programs, the lowest since the office began reporting numbers in 2005. In her annual report, she proudly touts the hundreds of felony convictions and wiretaps she secures every year, positioning her office as the answer to the opioid, heroin, and fentanyl crisis, as if we can arrest our way out of the overdose crisis.

Nor has she evolved. Last year, Brennan opposed safe injection sites, claiming, against all evidence, that they would come “at the expense of public safety.” In a 2018 letter to the state’s Health Department, she ignores countless studies emphasizing the public health benefits of these sites, incorrectly stating that they “do not correlate to lowered overall overdose death rates and do not have an impressive track record of linking clients to rehabilitative treatment.” When more New Yorkers are dying every year from opioid overdoses than murder, relying on broken “drug warrior” rhetoric instead of evidence-based approaches to drug use is playing politics with peoples’ lives.

Brennan has also maintained fierce opposition to recently-enacted statewide bail reform. In April, she argued, again without evidence, that pretrial release of defendants charged with drug crimes would “jeopardize efforts to contain the opioid epidemic,” and complained that “the public has been left in the dark” on the outcomes of bail reform. Just last week, Brennan called for the new laws to be rolled back mere days after they took effect.

The Officer of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor is an antiquated remnant from half a century ago, which only seeks to continue the lost War on Drugs and fight any attempt at meaningful criminal justice reform. But even though none of the five district attorneys who appointed her in 1998 are still in office today, Brennan’s office received a $22 million budget in 2018 and employed over 200 staff members.

That’s why today, I’m calling for the removal of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor and the abolition of the office. The duty to prosecute narcotics cases should fall on New York City’s five elected district attorneys, not an unelected career prosecutor appointed over two decades ago. Abolishing the office is the only way for our criminal justice system to be accountable to all New Yorkers.

As Manhattan District Attorney, I will:

  1. Retract all staff and resources that the Manhattan DA currently provides to the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. By law, the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s assistant district attorneys (ADAs) are on loan from the city’s five elected District Attorneys. In 2018, 60 of the office’s 73 ADAs were assigned by the Manhattan DA. On Day One, I would order the those ADAs to return to the Manhattan DA’s office, and cease all other forms of support to Special Narcotics, significantly weakening its capacity.
  2. Support legislation to abolish the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor and reinvest its budget in harm reduction programs. The Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s office can only be eliminated through state law. I will support legislation to abolish the office and direct its $22 million budget towards harm reduction programs to reduce drug use and protect public health.
  3. In the interim, remove Brennan as Special Narcotics Prosecutor. Twenty-two years is enough. Bridget Brennan has proven that her approach is stuck in the past, and is determined to thwart even the slightest reforms to our criminal justice system. On Day One, I will renounce my office’s support for Brennan and encourage the City’s other District Attorneys to join me. (With the support of three DAs, Brennan can be removed.) Until this office is eliminated, it should be led by someone taking a public health centered approach.

It’s time to end the War on Drugs in New York, and that means abolishing the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.

Read the rest of our comprehensive plan for a new approach to drug policy, and learn more about our campaign at JanosForDA.com.

Criminal justice advocate. Democratic Candidate For Manhattan District Attorney.