More than a third of all criminal defendants on Long Island are Black men but the people prosecuting their cases are overwhelmingly white.
In 1998, Donald Rollock was one of two Black men working in the Nassau County District Attorney’s office. His white supervisor assigned him the case of a mother abusing her teenage daughter.
“It was a 16-year-old girl and she was having sex with some guy, an older guy,” Rollock recalled in an interview. “Mom goes there, finds her, beats her with a belt, then takes her to the hospital and made sure that she's not pregnant.”
He interviewed the mother, and then the daughter. They were Black, and Rollock decided it wasn’t abuse.
“There are a lot of white folks who don't think that you should be beating your kids. A lot of other cultures, Black cultures, believe that you want to set your kids straight.”
Rollock went back and forth about this with his supervisor.
“I was like, I refuse to prosecute a person for a D felony assault when that person can go to jail for seven years when that person in fact was disciplining their child.” Finally, the supervisor agreed with proceeding on a lesser charge. But the experience stayed with Rollock.
He resigned from the DA’s office in 2003, leaving Nassau County with just a single Black male assistant district attorney. Now he works on the other side of the courtroom as a criminal defense lawyer opposing prosecutors who don’t reflect the community.
“It's a big concern of mine, it has been for many years. Because I've noticed that there are hardly any male Blacks,” he said.
According to statistics collected by the courts, more than a third of all criminal defendants on Long Island are Black men. However, there are only two Black male assistant district attorneys for all of Long Island.
Demographic data obtained through interviews and freedom of information requests reveal that Long Island’s justice system is overwhelmingly white prosecutors trying Black men.
Nassau and its neighbor to the east, Suffolk, are the two most populous counties in the state outside of New York City, with over 7 million residents. About 10% of residents on Long Island are Black, yet only 6% of prosecutors for Nassau County are Black. In Suffolk, it’s only 3%.
The problem is most pronounced for men since more men come through the system as defendants, yet fewer Black men choose to become prosecutors. In Suffolk and Nassau, just 0.5% of prosecutors are Black men, compared to Manhattan and Queens each at 4%, the Bronx at 3%, and Brooklyn at 10%.
“Our first issue is getting people in the door. So changing the perception that Nassau is racist,” said April Montgomery, an ADA in Nassau and the office’s director of recruitment.
When she goes out recruiting, her message is focused on things other than prosecution.
“It's not just arresting people and throwing them in jail. These are community services that we have,” she said. “These are alternatives to incarceration, these are services we have so that you do not become criminally involved.”
However, her pitch is at odds with the statistics.
According to New York’s Office of Court Administration, white defendants on Long Island are more likely to get fines while Black defendants are more likely to get jail time—even for the same crime, and even though white defendants plead guilty at higher rates.
For example, over the last six months, half of the Black and Hispanic people accused of petit larceny were given jail. No white people charged for these same small thefts were imprisoned. Instead, they got fines, probation, or no sanction at all.
Overall on Long Island, roughly half of white defendants plead guilty to crimes, but only a quarter are given jail sentences. Black defendants plead guilty less often (45% of the time) but are imprisoned more (38% of the time).
“These statistics indicate possible implicit bias on part of the entire system,” said Larry Flowers, president of the Suffolk County Criminal Bar Association.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office said it is aware of the disparity and it’s something they are investigating. In an interview, Leslie Anderson, executive ADA in Suffolk, said she is missing key data points—such as criminal history—to make a firm determination of bias.
“I don't know that having more Black men in the office would change that, but it certainly would be an interesting study,” she said.
Anderson says she is aggressively trying to hire more Black men. 2020 was the office’s most aggressive push which included reaching out through Black bar associations, Black law school associations, and historically Black colleges, “We drew in somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 candidates from 80 law schools around the country, and yet and still,” Anderson said, “We're just not getting Black males to apply.”
In part, Anderson blames a small number of Black men graduating from local law schools.
According to data collected by the American Bar Association, downstate law schools do graduate Black JDs at rates lower than population averages. However, Black men are entering law school at rates five times what Nassau and Suffolk DAs can recruit.
Here both Suffolk’s Leslie Anderson and Nassau’s April Montgomery blame Black distrust in the justice system.
Anderson said, “The concern is that they'll be viewed as sort of sellouts in the community if they do it.”
Olivier Roche, who was also the only Black male ADA in Suffolk from 2009 to 2012 before switching to defense, faults DA offices for perpetuating this mentality.
“It's horrible, if you start off with that idea in your head, how genuine will your efforts be?”
He suggests rather than trying to change the ways Black people see prosecutors, these offices should change the ways they impact Black lives.
In an interview, Roche offered different policies on drugs, gangs, decreased focus on getting convictions, better plea deals, or more of an emphasis on rehabilitation.
“We could reimagine the agency to do better,” he said. “We can't be complacent.”