As Crime Rises, N.Y. Prosecutor Candidates Vow to Rein In Office

Despite a recent rise in crime, many of the candidates in the crowded field vying to become the next Manhattan district attorney are talking about which crimes they won’t prosecute, rather than those they will.

This year’s race to succeed Cyrus Vance, who is unlikely to seek re-election, has become one of the most progressive campaigns in the country. Several candidates have vowed to stop prosecuting low-level crimes like prostitution, fare-beating and marijuana possession while two have pledged to ending gang conspiracy cases. At a recent online candidate forum, five of the people said they supported defunding the police.

Whoever wins the June 22 Democratic primary is likely to shake up the office, to which only three White men have been elected in the past 79 years. The person will also take over the investigation that could turn into the office’s most historic prosecution — that of Donald Trump.

The most high-profile district attorney’s office in the nation — and the inspiration for the long-running TV series “Law & Order”—  is responsible for prosecuting most crimes in Manhattan, from purse-snatching to corporate fraud to murder. Over its storied history, the office has won the convictions of Harvey Weinstein for sex crimes; David Berkowitz for the “Son of Sam” shootings; and former Tyco International Ltd. chief executive officer Dennis Kozlowski for looting his company. Vance has come under criticism for some missteps, including an initial decision not to prosecute Weinstein, but he has silenced some critics with his Trump probe.

That case hasn’t come up much during the race though. Instead, the campaign has focused heavily on the racial- and social-justice issues that came to the fore following the deaths of several unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. In that respect, Manhattan could be set to join a progressive tide that in recent years has seen Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Brooklyn elect new district attorneys on pledges of sweeping reform. 

But the recent spike in violent crime in New York could test the appeal of such arguments. The five boroughs saw 468 homicides in 2020, the most in a decade, and shootings doubled from the year before, according to the New York Police Department. The first two months of 2021 have seen murders in New York fall slightly, to 47 from 49 during the same period last year, but shootings have increased 75%. 

Manhattan, where Trump barely received 10% of the 2020 vote, is certainly progressive territory. And relatively few Democratic primary voters will essentially decide the race long before Election Day — no Republicans are currently running and none has won the office since Thomas Dewey in 1938. 

Manhattan district attorneys face a “constant balancing act,” said George Arzt, a longtime New York political consultant. “There is a pendulum swing in criminal justice where there is a call for law and order when people are sick of crime and shootings and then the pendulum swings back in the wake of cases like Eric Garner and George Floyd toward moderation and reforms.”

The candidates largely reject any connection between rising crime and progressive reforms. They say the prosecutions they are foreswearing have unfairly targeted individuals and communities of color, and violent crimes would be better addressed by focusing on issues like gun control and mental health. Increased prosecutions and incarcerations only contribute to a cycle of recidivism, some candidates contend. Despite the recent increase, crime remains far lower than it was two decades ago — there were nearly 2,000 murders in New York in 1993.

Competitive district attorney races in Manhattan have been rare events, with Vance’s predecessor, Robert Morgenthau, and Dewey’s successor, Frank Hogan, each staying in office for more than three decades. The diversity of the current field, which includes six women and a Black man, also mark a departure from the mold set by Morgenthau and Vance, both sons of cabinet secretaries.

“It’s a large and interesting field who are really unknowns,” said Arzt. “There is a possibility there could be the first woman D.A. in history for Manhattan or the first African American man.”

Where the race stands at the moment is difficult to judge, given the lack of polling. Two candidates have considerably outpaced the others in terms of campaign contributions, with Alvin Bragg raising $1.3 million and Tali Farhadian Weinstein raising $2.3 million.

District attorney primaries are typically low-turnout affairs. Though there are 860,000 registered Democrats in Manhattan, Vance needed fewer than 50,000 of them to win his 2009 primary against two opponents. Running in a field of eight, the next district attorney might be elected by fewer than 30,000, said Daniel R. Alonso, a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor and top deputy to Vance who’s concerned that progressive reforms could lead to an increase in crime.

“My biggest worry is that somebody is going to look in the mirror and say, ‘I am a Manhattan progressive, I was against everything Donald Trump stood for, so I need to vote for the most progressive candidate,’ without stopping to consider what that really means and the potential negative effect that that will have on public safety,” said Alonso.

Rebecca Roiphe, a veteran of the district attorney’s office who’s now a professor at New York Law School, shares Alonso’s views. “The debate has been so focused on the ways in which these candidates are going to reform the office in a progressive manner that there is very little attention being paid to traditional law enforcement function like crime fighting,” she said.

The three candidates staking out the most progressive positions — Eliza Orlins, a public defender, Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights lawyer, and Dan Quart, a state assemblyman — have never worked as prosecutors before. Orlins wants to defund the district attorney’s office along with the police, vowing to cut its $120 million budget in half while replacing many of its staff with former public defenders or defense lawyers. Aboushi has said she’ll replace the unit that reviews initial arrests with one focused on diverting offenders out of the criminal justice system.

Three former Manhattan assistant district attorneys — Lucy Lang, Liz Crotty and Diana Florence — are in the race, while Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein have both worked as federal prosecutors. The former prosecutors are also promoting progressive reforms, though. Lang has pledged to devise policies that divert incoming cases into programs that provide alternatives to prosecution. Bragg has vowed to create a unit of outside lawyers, social workers and community leaders to hold police officers accountable. Farhadian Weinstein has touted her work with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office reviewing past wrongful convictions.

Crotty has argued for stepping up white-collar prosecutions to “institute a culture of fairness” that targets wealthy offenders as much as poorer ones. Florence has cited her history of taking on real estate and construction fraud to demonstrate that she wouldn’t be afraid to pursue the rich and influential over what she calls “crimes of power.”

When it comes to one particular case involving a rich and influential person, the candidates are mostly mum though. They have all said it would be inappropriate for them to speculate about possibly prosecuting Trump. With the investigation gaining momentum though, chances are growing that the former president could be at the heart of the next district attorney’s biggest decision to prosecute or not.

Tahanie Aboushi: The civil rights lawyer says she will shrink the district attorney’s office, implement a policy platform that “addresses the root causes of crime” and won’t prosecute at least two dozen crimes. Promises to get tough on crime usually lead to policies criminalizing “people of color while catering to the powerful and privileged,” Aboushi said. “The easy or soft thing to do is turn to more police and prosecution and continue to conflate accountability with incarceration.”

Alvin Bragg: A Harlem native, the former assistant Manhattan U.S. attorney and onetime chief deputy state attorney general says he won’t prosecute low-level crimes like turnstile jumping and gang conspiracy cases against juvenile offenders. He promises to prosecute crimes like domestic violence and create a civil rights unit to investigate police misconduct. “I will work to reshape and repurpose the D.A.’s office to end racial disparities,” said Bragg, adding that he would “refuse to criminalize poverty.”

Liz Crotty: The prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer is positioning herself as a moderate who has seen both sides of what the office does. She’s vowed to prioritize white-collar prosecutions for fraud, money laundering, enterprise corruption and other economic malfeasance. Though Crotty also says she won’t bring charges for minor crimes like turnstile jumping and shoplifting, she’s been critical of the race’s focus on foreswearing prosecutions. “The job of the D.A. is to enforce the law of the state of New York and to run on a platform describing the kinds of crimes you won’t enforce is disingenuous,” she said.

Diana Florence: The 25-year veteran of the D.A.’s office won landmark convictions over wage theft, deadly work conditions and non-profit fraud. Florence, who has won significant union backing, says the criminal justice system needs to take on developers and landlords. “The discussion isn’t about not prosecuting but it’s about prosecuting the right types of crime that destroy our communities like domestic violence, violent crime and sexual assault,” Florence said. “It also means prosecuting in a fair way, making sure we don’t give powerful people a pass and instead over-prosecute people who are low income and people of color.”

Lucy Lang: A homicide and domestic violence prosecutor under Vance and Morgenthau, she now touts her support for alternative justice programs that provides for supervised release or restorative justice. “I’ve spent my career working with those most impacted by the system,” she said. “We don’t have to choose between ending mass incarceration and keeping our communities safe, because with the right leadership, we will achieve both.”

Eliza Orlins: The Manhattan public defender vows to never prosecute misdemeanor cases, sex work and some drug possession cases. Calling the criminal justice system “rigged,” Orlins wants to curtail the office’s prosecutorial function and push for alternatives to incarceration. “We’ve been sold a false choice between public safety and incarceration,” she said. “The reality is that a punitive criminal legal system does not keep us safe and it never will.” Orlins is one of the more familiar faces in the race due to her past as a contestant on reality TV shows “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.” 

Dan Quart: The state assemblyman for the Upper East Side lists at least 18 crimes he won’t prosecute and says decarceration is his top priority. “For far too long, our criminal justice system has criminalized poverty and mental health instead of prioritizing public safety,” Quart said. “Instead of prosecuting low-level crimes that punish poverty, like fare-evasion and drug possession, I’ll prosecute violent and economic crime that harms Manhattanites and I’ll hold the police accountable for excessive force.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein: The former assistant Brooklyn U.S. attorney and onetime Supreme Court clerk calls herself as a “progressive prosecutor” who will pursue bail and sentencing reforms. She says she would create a unit focusing on domestic and gender-based violence. “The best prosecutors use their resources to fight the crimes that harm the most vulnerable and do the most damage to public safety,” she said. Farhadian Weinstein, the wife of Saba Capital co-founder Boaz Weinstein, has attracted significant financial support from hedge fund heavyweights like David Einhorn and Bill Ackman.

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