We asked long-time assemblyman and political pundit Jerry Kremer to interview New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Their conversation encompassed everything from Long Island’s progress in the fight against prescription and street opiates to labor and gun laws and tensions between police and civilians.
Jerry Kremer: What is your evaluation of measures like I-STOP that are geared at controlling Long Island’s prescription drug problem?
Eric Schneiderman: I-STOP has been a tremendous success. When I took office, I proposed legislation that created the nation’s first real-time tracking system for the most additive prescription drugs, which has helped prevent drug addicts from doctor shopping. Since I-STOP took effect the Department of Health has reported that incidents of doctor shopping are down 75 percent in New York.
JK: Have you observed any developments in Long Island’s street opiate problem? Is there any state solution?
ES: Over the last four years we have aggressively tackled heroin and opiate problems plaguing our state. We’ve pursued the traditional law enforcement approach, arresting more than 400 members of 20 of the largest drug and guns gangs in the state. Because drugs flow across state borders, no single state can tackle this challenge alone. I launched an unprecedented interstate heroin task force to improve coordination among law enforcement agencies throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
We also recognize that you can’t prosecute your way out of a drug epidemic. We have to end the cycle of abuse and addiction. I-STOP is helping prevent people from getting hooked on prescription narcotics—which are often a gateway to heroin abuse. We provided money to equip police officers with an antidote for heroin and opioid overdoses that can reverse an overdose almost instantaneously. [The medication naloxone blocks the effects of opiates and can prevent overdose deaths.] Bringing people back from the brink of death can help steer them into treatment.
JK: What are you doing to alleviate tensions surrounding police violence? Do you favor grand jury proceedings being made public in cases of police abuse?
ES: Over the last few months, we have seen an emerging consensus on the need for essential reforms in our criminal justice system and grand jury process to restore public trust and confidence. As he has done so many times throughout his tenure, Chief Justice [Jonathan] Lippman recently outlined a thoughtful set of proposals that will further our state’s debate. I welcome his remarks, and look forward to working with the chief justice, the governor and legislature to pass meaningful reform during this legislative session.
JK: What has your office done about the problem of illegal guns?
ES: Keeping illegal firearms out of the hands of criminals and people who are mentally ill is one of my top priorities. That is why I took action to close the gun show loophole in New York State. After my office conducted an investigation and found that people were able to buy guns without the legally required background checks, we took action. We negotiated with every gun show operator in the state and got them to agree to an unprecedented model protocol that will ensure every gun sold at a show is preceded by a background check.
We’re also working to crack down on the flow of illegal guns into New York. In November, we seized more than 70 illegal guns that were being shipped from Florida to New York on a Chinatown bus. Gun sales over the Internet are also a form of this problem. We’ve worked with Facebook to put policies in place to help curb illegal gun sales through social media.
JK: There is a lot of discussion going on about reforming the criminal justice system. What areas need the most reform?
ES: The focus has to be on finding policies that actually work. When I was a state senator, I led the successful campaign to repeal the draconian Rockefeller drug laws that led to mass over incarceration. Those policies failed because drug addicts do better in treatment than they do in prison. We replaced those policies with a more effective approach to criminal justice. Five years later, statistics all show that crime rates are falling, our prison population is declining and recidivism rates have dropped.
We need to channel energy into reforms that work so we can keep our communities safe, protect law enforcement officers and restore public confidence in the system.
JK: Your office recently sued a Papa John’s franchise for underpaying its workers and you pledged to “vigorously enforce” New York labor law. Do you think these enforcements will have any impact on the industry?
ES: No one who works full-time should live in poverty. Workers deserve to be paid every penny they legally earn. This is good for businesses too. Leveling the playing field ensures honest, law-abiding businesses aren’t at a competitive disadvantage against those that cheat their workers. By bringing both civil and criminal cases against businesses that illegally underpay their workers, we are sending a strong message that our labor laws apply to every employer and every industry.
JK: Your office
has played a major role in policing the financial services industry. Are those investigations ongoing?
ES: Absolutely. I was appointed by President Obama in 2012 to co-chair an unprecedented state and federal task force to investigate the banks that contributed to the crash of the economy in 2008. So far we’ve levied some of the largest penalties in history. We’ve forced those banks to pay more than $60 billion in cash and consumer relief. And more cases are coming.
JK: Are settlements
the only penalty when wrongdoers are caught?
ES: We follow the evidence wherever it leads. We don’t shy away from criminal charges when they’re supported by the evidence. While no one has gone to prison yet, it is important to note that none of the penalties we’ve negotiated with the big banks have granted immunity from criminal prosecution. I am firmly committed to the notion that no one is above the law. Wherever and whenever we can, we will push for accountability.