NYC Gun Court Gets Tough on Offenders

The Associated Press
Monday, June 5, 2006; 7:31 AM

NEW YORK -- The court case listed as the People vs. Godfrey Hayle looked like an unremarkable one: Police claimed the 44-year-old suspect tried to ditch a 9 mm handgun last year during a drug bust.

But when Hayle walked into a downtown Brooklyn courtroom last week, state Supreme Court Justice Robert Holdman was unusually attentive _ and blunt. For starters, he shot down a defense attorney's bid for a plea deal with no jail time.

"That's not going to happen in this case," Holdman said. "The offer from the district attorney's office is one year. I'm comfortable with that."

It was a message that Holdman _ a 42-year-old former prosecutor with a crewcut _ sent several times that morning: Don't expect much leniency in one of the nation's busiest gun courts.

"I'm not the gun czar or the new sheriff in town," Holdman said later outside court. "But I am here to uphold the law and make sure justice is done."

While the strategy of making certain cases a priority by funneling them to the same judge in a specialized court isn't unique, gun courts have become a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's highly publicized crusade to discourage criminals from selling, buying and using illegal firearms in the five boroughs.

Bloomberg and judicial officials announced the opening of gun courts in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens about three years ago. Since then, the percentage of gun-possession defendants receiving one-year jail terms or longer has roughly doubled, city officials said.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office alone has handled roughly 1,100 cases in gun court since 2003, with about a 90 percent conviction rate. More than half the defendants are between the ages of 16 to 21 years old. Most were caught carrying semiautomatic handguns.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn demand a minimum one-year sentence, even for first-time offenders who technically could receive probation. If defendants don't agree to do the time, they're forced to go to trial, often within six months _ lightning speed for the courts. If convicted, they could go away for two years or longer.

"We see every possession of a gun as a potential homicide," said Sue-Ellen Bienenfeld, who supervises six prosecutors assigned to the Brooklyn gun court. "We don't want to wait for somebody to actually be killed."

The country's first gun court was established in Providence, R.I., in 1994. They later turned up in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee and elsewhere _ part of a trend that also produced drug, truancy and domestic violence courts.

Advocates say such so-called specialty courts resolve cases with more efficiency and consistency. But some legal experts question their value.

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