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Bronx D.A. Robert Johnson: A Lifetime of Service

November 26, 2008

Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson delivered the keynote address at Lehman's Center for Urban Male Leadership's first "Speaker Series" entitled "the Power of Education for Urban Leaders."

28 Minutes 28 Seconds

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This is Professor Michael Deas, Director of the Center for Urban Male Leadership.

Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson delivered the keynote address at Lehman's Center for Urban Male Leadership's first "Speaker Series" entitled "the Power of Education for Urban Leaders." Mr. Johnson's talk focused on education as a necessary tool for empowerment and self-fulfillment.



As a student, I feel like-- and this is important as we talk about the power of education. I feel like I fit into a number of different descriptions that you could describe a student. You know, people look at students and say, "He is the honor student." "He is the D student." "She is the middle-of-the-road student." And they look and they judge everybody by grade point averages and where they stand in the class.

During my lifetime of education, I have been in every one of those positions. I have been, in particular in elementary school, what I guess people would call the honor student. In high school, I was, most of the time, if not (CHUCKLE) all of the time, the struggling student. It was a very, very difficult process for me.

And in college, I was a little bit of each; the struggling student and then, once again, the honor student, the straight A student. And in law school, squarely, firmly planted in the middle of the road. And that's important for you to understand, because sometimes people think only the honor student, only the person that gets everything immediately, and gets straight A's without putting in -- breakin' out a sweat, putting in any effort, is the person who's gonna get to do things later on in life.


Nothing could be farther from the truth. But what I tried to do as I went through this process was to understand that, even if I slipped toward the bottom at times, that I didn't wanna slip completely off the table and out of the picture and become in that percentage that was dropouts. So as high school was a struggle, and for me, it particularly was probably because memorization is not one of my strengths.

So that subjects like languages -- and I took Latin and French in high school, and I took -- math and science -- those kinda thi-- well, not so much math, but science and history -- history, my goodness. (CHUCKLE) How I struggled. And I tell you, to this day, I regret that I didn't-- that I didn't grasp it, that I didn't get it. Because I see how it relates to things that are occurring now. And I still struggle to try and keep up and try and understand what has gone on before and how it relates to today.

And part of it was not -- you know, and some of it may have been -- a little bit of laziness at times. But most of it was just that that's not my strength; memorizing things and understanding what happened when and remembering it. So that made high school particularly difficult for me. The math, to me, made sense. There was a reason behind the math. The English and the literature and those kinda things, that was reasoning, and-- and-- and something that I could think out and understand and-- and get my arms around. But it became a struggle.


And toward the end of high school, I latched onto something that I thought, "Well, this I can do. You know, this I'm good at. This is can do. And-- this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life." Wasn't law. It was accounting. In my third or fourth year of-- high school, I took accounting. And boy, I could, you know, add those numbers up, make those balance sheets balance.

And, you know, I said, "I could be of value to somebody by monitoring their money." And the reason I tell this is because it's something else you have to consider. One day you may feel you're on a road that's gonna take you-- to something, to-- to glory and-- and greatness. And then you find out that there's more to it than what you thought.

When I got to Baruch, which was actually at the time-- Baruch was part of City, it hadn't yet become its own separate college. It was the business school of City. When I entered Baruch and took college-- I mean took accounting, through the first year it was fine. And then, in the second year, the third semester, started taking cost and intermediate accounting. And those balance sheets didn't add up anymore. Was a lot more complicated.


And I really felt like, "This is it. I'm-- I'm at the-- at the precipice now. You know, what am I gonna do where the grades are dropping? And how am I gonna get through this?" And I at least stepped back and thought, "Well, if I continue these courses through this semester, my grade point average is gonna be somewhere that I don't want it to be." So I actually withdrew from Baruch at that point in the third semester.

And that's when the Navy experience came in that you spoke about. It was-- 1968. It was actually before the draft lottery. I think some of you may have heard, where they pick numbers to see who was gonna be drafted, and-- depending on your birthday, what number you got, they call-- in that order. This was before that lottery. So, either you were a teacher, you were a student, you were a police officer, or you were drafted. And once again, I used my reasoning powers. Drafted in the Army? There's probably mud, probably Vietnam. Said, "Let me go in the Navy. Let me-- (CHUCKLE) let me go somewhere where they may have some clean sheets, some hot meals every night. And since it's where I gotta go, I gotta go-- I'm gonna pick my way." And that's what I did.

And I served in the Navy for a couple a years. And my younger brother, who-- was that student I mentioned before who everything came easy to him? I love him to death. But here's a guy who only got one B in four years of college, and everything else was A's.


So he was in college at the time. And he gave me something to read, some philosophy. And I latched onto it. Plato talking about what is justice. It actually was a short portion of Plato's Republic-- a man named Thrasymachus, which means "right thinking foe" in Greek, talking about what is justice. And that just grabbed me, and it never let me go.

And from there, when I got out of the Navy and came back to City College, I came back as a philosophy major, and talked and-- and thought and-- and read about reasoning and how to articulate what you believed in, and what justice really meant. And City College nurtured that. And when I got a degree in philosophy, had to make a decision again. And it's-- life is about making decisions.

What do you do with a degree in philosophy? (CHUCKLE) Do you go on to a master's and a Ph.D. and teach philosophy for the rest of your life? Or do you go in a different path? And I decided-- to take the LSAT and try to go to law school. Which is something I might add that, through this-- whole experience of socialization, was never too far from my mind. Because my father was a court officer from the time I was ten or younger. So I'd been exposed to the court. I had seen judges in the process of trying to deal with tension within families, and trying to-- to-- mete out justice and-- and try to correct the behavior of a husband and keep the family intact, and things like that.


So it was something that interested me. And I said, "This is-- this is a place where I can do something. This is a place that can lead to service." In fact, I wanted to study government, New York City government in particular. It's why I picked NYU Law School.

But I got afraid of studying too much government because government wasn't gonna be on the bar exam. So I took one course and went on. And-- and-- took a little bit of everything to prepare myself for the bar exam. And this is important to know what the next step is gonna be and just be prepared for the next step. And that's what I tried to do.

So I took administrative law, contracts law, tax law, corporations-- family law, evidence, you name it. I took the kitchen sink. One course in city government. But I was ready for the bar exam. Because the law is really-- it's-- it's-- it's like four different skills. You have to pass the LSAT, which is aptitude. You have to get through law school, which is learning and understanding, basically, a new language, being able to argue either side of the question and recite it back to the professor. And then you have to be able to pass a bar exam, which is taking a position, not reciting both sides, but taking a position on one side of the question and getting all the-- the-- legal reasoning into it. And then (CHUCKLE) even after you do that, you have to learn how practice law. So it's really four different things. So I tried to-- have my eye on the next step each part of the way.


During law school, I really got my first opportunity for service. And now I'm sure some of you are doing service here at Lehman. I know the young men involved in the Center for Urban leadership are doing that just by their presence in-- in bolstering up each other. But I didn't feel I was strong enough academically to do it until I really finished the whole process.

So while I was in law school, I got to spend a couple of summers at the Legal Aid Society here in the Bronx, where they represent criminal defendants. And that's what people felt at that time a way a lawyer can serve the community. It's a tremendous way a lawyer can-- can serve the community. I would do it again if I had to. I loved every second of it. And when I graduated, I went and became a defense lawyer, and represented people here in the Bronx who could not afford their own attorney.

Got to stand up in court, and was really their ticket, you know, between them and going home. And particularly in the arraignment court, which I love. It's like it's not the trial, but it's-- it's so key. A decision is gonna be made by a judge whether or not a person spends the time in-- in jail awaiting trial or goes home and is able to come out and help the lawyer prepare the case. It is so key.


And that responsibility, really-- to me was-- was just gripping. It-- it was-- it-- it-- it was real. It was gritty. And it-- it was something I relished and I understood. In fact, I stand here, you may not sense this, but I'm essentially a shy person. I don't like to hear myself talk. I don't wanna be the center of attention. But when I got in front of that judge, I understood that it wasn't about me, it was about that person standing next to me. And if I didn't get it out, what I needed to say, that person's life was gonna be impacted. And from there, you know, you just kinda start to blank out the audience and focus on the messages.

Then, for the first time, when I was there at Legal Aid, I got the sense that I wanted to make a plan. You know, if you notice so far, it's been kinda hit and miss, day to day I'm gonna survive today, and if I'm still standing, I'll figure out what I'm gonna do tomorrow. Which is still kinda my basic philosophy.

But at that point, I came up with a plan. I looked at the judges and said, "You know, I'd like to do that one day," knowing that the chances of a lawyer becoming a judge are-- are not that great. There are many talented lawyers. You have to be admitted ten years. But I came up with a plan. I said, "I'm gonna make myself marketable by having a balanced experience: five years defense, five years as an assistant district attorney."


Well, a monkey wrench got thrown into that plan. Because, after three years at Legal Aid, the D.A.'s office asked me did I want to apply. And I decided bird in the hand. Take it now, apply, and see what you can do. And that led me into a new-- a whole new experience-- just being an assistant district attorney for eight years. And it-- and it really showed me a different side of-- of-- of the criminal justice system.

I went literally from a Friday afternoon as a defense lawyer, walking into court saying, "Judge, please," or to an assistant D.A., "Please, would you please reduce this charge? Would you please reduce this ba-- bail? Would you please consider this? Would you please consider that?" to a decision maker. Because every assistant D.A., no matter how new they are, is making judgments about whether or not a case is made out legally, and whether or not there's enough evidence, and whether-- even if both of those things are done-- what do we wanna do with the case? What's our recommendation for sentence?

And it's-- it's a-- it's a-- it's an awesome, awesome responsibility. And I worked my way through the office doing that, trying cases, making decisions-- becoming-- a leader of sorts. I became a bureau chief, where I supervised some 20 people or so. And then you heard I became a judge for two years. I really won't talk about that that much.


The-- only to say that-- being a judge, as rewarding as it was-- and enj-- I have enjoyed everything I've done in my career. Being a judge really is not-- in the criminal justice system in particular, the number one essential, most effective, most impact position. Being the district attorney is. And I'll explain that in a second. That's why I resigned my position as district-- as judge to run for district attorney. Because the district attorney is the person making the policy.

The district attorney is the person who can decide, even when the law says that if you are charged with this crime, you must go to jail if you're found guilty-- and there are so many people charged with crimes where jail is not the proper-- response. It's the district attorney who decides whether or not the charge can be reduced. The judge only can decide that based on sufficiency of evidence.

The district attorney can just decide, in a discretionary way, to say, "This doesn't need to be done. I don't need to prosecute at this level. I can come a level down." And that's what my boss, Mario Merola, taught us. That's what I'm teaching assistants now on a daily basis. Make the decisions. Get the whole sense of the case.


Last year, the police department brought us almost 100,000 s-- arrests in Bronx County. Each and every one of those had to be considered individually. I send out over 400 lawyers into the courtrooms, into the complaint room, to make decisions on those cases. This is something that I never dreamed that I would get the opportunity to do. Certainly not as a fourth-- fifth-- a fourth or fifth grader, not even as a college student, not even as a law student.

But it happened. And that's because I kept options open. And-- because of that, I've gotten to do so many things. I mention-- I'm an employer. We have 800 people on our staff, a budget of about $45 million. And the lawyers in particular, I see every one that we have hired in the last 20 years, it's been my decision.

And we've been able to build up-- the number of lawyers of color. We're over 30 percent. And it doesn't sound like a lot in Bronx County, where I know people of color are over 70 or 80 percent. But you have to understand the legal profession hasn't caught up with the population of Bronx County. The legal profession's probably still down around ten percent. So we have well over 100 lawyers of color. In fact, we have over 90 African-American and Latino lawyers out of our 417 lawyers right now.


But even there, we're seeing that this whole question of the urban male, actually, of any male, is beginning to shift. And it's a couple of things we're-- we're up against. One is-- we-- we have now over 50 percent of our lawyers, for a number of years, have been women. I mentioned the-- the 92 or so-- African-American and Latino lawyers. Well, only 30 some odd of those are men. The rest are women.

And that's part because of the population in the law schools. And even the population in the law schools, in particular with the African-American male. The African-American male is becomin' so rare in our law schools that they almost write their own ticket when they graduate. They're sought out by us. They're sought about by other government-- offices that pay more than we do. They're sought out by the private sector. So it's very, very competitive in terms of the African-American male.

But the other problem is that there are not enough, not enough in the pipeline. And this is one of the issues that I've been able to work on and study. The New York State Bar Association, through the years, I think, has only had two African-American presidents. The last one set up a committee to deal with this issue of-- of getting people into the pipeline, getting people of color into the pipeline.


But not just by coming here to Lehman or some other college and saying, "Do you wanna go to law school? You should go to law school." But trying to reach down at the elementary, the middle school, the high-- the high school level, to get people interested in what we're doing. To get them on the road to college so that they can be on the road to-- to law school and beyond. So that's-- that's one of the things that we do.

The major part of what I do has to do with this whole thing of fighting crime, public safety. And it's the part that people see all the time, and the people talk about. I'm not gonna talk too much about it, other than to say that it's been really rewarding for me. In a county that I was born in, and I-- I lived in Manhattan till I was 16. But I've lived here now in the Bronx over 40 years. And even when I lived in Manhattan, we came to my grandmother's house every Saturday in the 42nd Precinct. There were 12 precincts in this county. I was born in one, visited my grandmother in another every Saturday. And since we moved back to the Bronx when I was a teenager, I've lived in six. So I have a personal connection to eight of the 12 precincts here.

And it's been rewarding to see that, in the violent crime category, from the year after I took office, where we hit 48,000 reported violent crimes in 1990 in the Bronx, we've gone down to 13,000 reported violent crimes. Over a 75 percent decline in violent crime here.


We've gone down from 653 homicides to 130. That's been very, very rewarding for me. But that's not the most important part of what we do. It may be the major part of what we do. But we've also been able to make those decisions I spoke about to put fairness into the process, decide who should be in the process, decide at what level they should be prosecuted.

We've been able to put thousands of young men in particular, young men and women, but they're mostly men, into rehabilitation. Especially for substance abuse. And we've been able to spend a lot of time working with young people on the prevention programs. We have a full-time Community Affairs Unit. And they talk to the adults in the community.

You know, they're our eyes and ears about what the community wants. And they tell the community about what we're doing. But what they do, and this is very, very important, is they relate to young people. We have mentors at the Eagle Academy, which is a new high school-- relatively new high school, only for young men. And-- and the mission of the principal, who is a lawyer, he's a reformed lawyer. He gave up his legal practice to go back into education and work with young men. That's-- that's real-- that's somebody you may wanna have here and talk about urban male leadership. His name is David Banks.


And he-- actually got the Law, Government and Justice School off the ground. And when he-- when he moved on from that, he got the Eagle Academy off the ground. And we have mentoring relationships. His mission is to get every one of those young men a mentor.

We have mentors at Roosevelt High School and-- I-- I think at least one other that I'm-- I'm not thinking of right now. We have a youth trial advocacy program for high school students. And we have prevention programs. It's called The Star Program, teaches-- middle school students about the negatives of drugs and the negatives of guns. This is-- this is what it's-- it's about for me.

So as I say all of this, talking about what I've gotten to do, it is not about me. I'm saying it because it's about you. Because going back to what I said in the beginning, I am you. Whether you're a woman, whether you're Latino, whether you're African-American, whether you're white, I am you. I have sat in the college classrooms of City University. I struggled with the decisions about what courses to take. I struggled with grades at the high school and the college level. And that's what it's about.


One of the things that the center is-- is talking about, not just the power of education, and-- and for me-- education is an ongoing process. I mean ever since I got into law school, for me, it's been reading, reading, reading, reading, anything I could get my hands on. I have to read decisions. I have to read at least four newspapers a day. I have to read memos-- about all the homicides. There's just so much to get your hands around.

And that's not even to talk about all the stuff about what's going on in Iran and Iraq and the economy, and politics. It-- it really builds you and makes you whole, and prepares you to-- to move out into the world and to get some things done. And this-- this education has just opened so many doors for me. One of the things it's done for me is-- is put me, as I said, in places I never thought I would be.

I've gotten to be in the room with-- with two presidents of the United States. One of them, Bill Clinton, I met three or four times-- was invited to the White House. I've gotten-- to go to Israel. In one week in Israel-- my wife and I got to meet not only the prime minister, but a past prime minister and a future prime minister. In one week in Israel, to sit down and talk-- to Shimon Perez about his vision for-- for peace. To sit down and have actually Ariel Sharon take us into the West Bank as our tour guide on a bus, showing us how housing was used strategically in Israel.


Next week, as I me-- not next week, three weeks, I'll be in South Africa. Things that I never dreamed of. I've gotten to do that. I've gotten to work with people. I've gotten to work with this decline in crime. And I've gotten to speak out about what I believe in.

Because that's part of what you do all of this for. You don't do all of this to, at the end of the day-- shrink back and let other people make decisions that you may feel are wrong. And what I'm talking about with respect to that is, in particular, in 1995, when the state elected a governor primarily on his-- his campaign to bring the death penalty back to this state, he was able to accomplish that in his first year. He was elected in '94. In '95, he brought the death penalty back to New York.

And he did it in a way that passed a law that said the district attorney, all 62 of us, there is one in each county in the state, the district attorney makes the decision whether or not the jury gets the opportunity to consider-- death as an option in certain criminal cases. Well, the day he did that, I knew that that was not necessary here in Bronx County. And I spoke the very same day, said, "Look, I know I'm elected by the people. I know some are for it, some against it. I've been in criminal justice all these years. I don't believe it needs to be done. And I don't intend to use the death penalty."


And it was a whole-- brouhaha-- between the governor and myself. But at the end of the day, even though he will say that, when he passed the death penalty -- and right now, it's been overruled -- overturned by the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, so we don't have it once again. But while it was in effect, the governor will tell you that the murder rate began to-- was declining. And I-- I'll agree with him on that.

But what I disagree was -- is that it began to decline, as I already told you, in 1990, which was the peak year for homicide in the Bronx in New York City. So it began to decline before the death penalty. It continued to decline after the death penalty. We've accomplished what we needed to do by using other tools, in particular, life without parole, which was on the books in New York State for the first time in that very same bill. Nobody focused on that. It was the first time New York ever had that option. So we focused on that option. We used life without parole even when the death penalty was an option, and were able to accomplish what the citizens of the county wanted us to accomplish.

So, at the end of the day, though, what it's about is you, and more importantly than you, what it's about is one of the messages of lending a hand. That's the message you have to all take from here. That you have to make the decisions to get yourself where you're going, get yourself in a position. Or even if you're in the private sector. I mean Mayor Bloomberg was in the private sector. He's making a dollar a year now so he can work on behalf of the city. Granted, some people will disagree with some decisions and agree with some.


But here's somebody who's decided he wants to work for the city. So you don't have to be government. You don't have to-- sacrifice everything. You can go out and make lots of money, then give it away. In fact-- if I ever wrote a book, the one book I would wanna-- first book I would wanna write is something called Altruistic Capitalism. Yes, you have the right to make as much money as you can. But you also should consider about what you're gonna do with the excess, and how you're gonna help your brother and sister.

Well, even if you don't have money, you have something that your brother and sister need. You have your own experience. 'Cause as you sit here as a Lehman student, you have what a high school student doesn't have. You know about the college entry process. You know about the course selection process. You know about the study habits you need. You know about building a curriculum to get you where you wanna go, into the work world, into graduate school, into professional school. You have that knowledge.

So whatever you have, you still have something that you can share with somebody else. That's why, even though I don't have a whole lot of money, and I make a lot more than the assistants in my office-- I don't have as much money as I would like to, or what-- as much money as I need to raise my sons. But I have something that I can give to you today, and will continue to give to City College, City University, Lehman College, to high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, wherever it's needed. Lend a hand. That's my message today. Thank you very much.




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