Gotham Gazette Thu, 04 Mar 2021 22:14:51 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Activists Press Manhattan District Attorney Candidates on How Far They’ll Go on Reform 4x4 2

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Tali Farhadian Weinstein; Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

All eight candidates currently running for Manhattan District Attorney gathered virtually last week for a reform-focused forum. The race to be Manhattan’s top prosecutor is taking place as incumbent District Attorney Cy Vance has not stated whether he will seek reelection, but has not been raising money or making campaign appearances. All eight candidates in the running are, like Vance, Democrats, and plan to appear on the June primary ballot.

The event was hosted by a large coalition of progressive groups pushing for the next Manhattan District Attorney to bring sweeping change to the office to reduce its footprint and the number of New Yorkers who are prosecuted and jailed. The groups included Color of Change, Vocal-NY, New York Communities for Change, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, the Working Families Party, and Sunrise Movement NYC, among others. The moderators posed pointed questions, pressing the candidates for how they would change policies from the Vance administration, and drawing viewers' attention to the differences in what candidates were — and weren't — willing to promise. Questions were directed to select candidates instead of being posed to the whole field. 

The candidates include civil rights attorney Tahani Aboushi; former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; State Assemblymember Dan Quart; public defender Eliza Orlins; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney and a former federal prosecutor; and former Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys Liz Crotty, Lucy Lang, and Diana Florence.

In response to moderators' repeated requests for specificity, candidates leaned on their legal backgrounds, highlighting experience in handling complex cases and fighting for reform, sometimes from within ‘the system’ and sometimes from the outside. Bragg highlighted his work at the New York Attorney General's office, Weinstein her work at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office; Florence highlighted support she has from labor unions based on her work prosecuting wage theft cases while in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office; and Lang focused on her work as a national criminal justice reformer, including in her recent position as Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

Aboushi directed attention to her work suing the NYPD and plans she has released for an arrest review unit and sentencing review unit. Orlins continued to highlight the cases she has worked as the only public defender in the race; Quart leaned upon criminal justice reform legislation he has helped pass during his years in Albany, and Crotty her work as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Aboushi and Orlins separated themselves early on in the discussion by being the only two candidates committed to cutting the Manhattan district attorney's budget by half. That budget stands at over $120 million per year.

Aboushi stated that she would decline to prosecute as many cases as possible and Orlins agreed, saying under her leadership almost no misdemeanor cases would be prosecuted. Orlins added that she would let go of prosecutors to help shrink the budget. 

"A lot of the budget for the Manhattan DA's office was increased to actually handle criminal justice reforms and a majority of it went to data collection, IT enhancements, and more staff to prosecute," Aboushi said.  

Aboushi added that she would disband the early case investment bureau and replace it with an arrest review unit, which would be focused on declining to prosecute cases instead of figuring out how to make charges stick. 

The next question was addressed to Quart, Bragg, and Weinstein, who moderators said had in the past failed to say they would decline to prosecute cases that were built upon police-initiated efforts including "buy and bust" tactics where plain-clothes officers pose as customers to uncover and arrest street drug dealers.

"When I was growing up in Harlem my mom used to tell me if someone asked me where the drug location was on our block, which I knew where it was, never to answer. I didn't understand then but the reason was these NYPD tactics of gotcha!" Bragg said. "These things where they are essentially entrapment, folks I would not do any of those cases. I would instruct the police commissioner don't bring these cases to my office because I'm not going to do them; they are fundamentally unfair."

Bragg added that 82% of all cases prosecuted in New York City are either misdemeanors or non-criminal offenses and that 80% of those cases are brought against people of color. Quart said he would avoid bringing misdemeanor cases to criminal court. 

Farhadian Weinstein said the district attorney's office must be careful and transparent in what it prosecutes, in addition to providing a list of what the office will decline to prosecute. While she committed to not prosecuting “lucky bag” cases—cases where the evidence against a defendant springs from a police tactic where officers plant a purse, backpack, or wallet in a public place and then arrest those who remove valuable items from the article—she was less committal when it came to “buy and bust” arrests.

"I'll say about buy and busts, it is a public health crisis. We're not trying to go after people who have chemical dependencies, but I can tell you having been a prosecutor of drug conspiracies, that really created a lot of violence, when I was working for Loretta Lynch sometimes you have to start with the small cases in order to be able to build the big cases," Weinstein said. 

Attention then turned to Aboushi, Orlins, and Quart, who moderators said had suggested the most significant reforms to the current district attorney's office. Just before the forum, the Five Borough Defenders coalition of public defenders released its extensive assessment of the eight candidates’ reform plans, knowledge, and ability to enact their promises, ranking Orlins and Quart at the top of their rankings focused on the office doing the least harm. Moderators asked how Aboushi, Orlins, and Quart would respond, manage, and overcome backlash to their policies once in office. 

Quart called for personnel changes that extended beyond the leadership team in order to bring in people who would be more in line with his vision. Orlins relied on her experience as a public defender, often battling against the district attorney's office, stating that she has seen first hand the damaging effects of prosecutorial misconduct and understood the office well enough to implement her plans. 

"I have gone up against this office,” said Orlins, who works for the Legal Aid Society. “I know the bureau chiefs, I know the assistant district attorneys, I know the deputies, I know the people there and I know who will be in line with my vision for what this office looks like when it’s decarceral and trying to actively not do harm and destroy families and incarcerate people, and that's due to my experience. I think the ethical obligations of a prosecutor have really not been upheld and I think the Manhattan District Attorney's office needs real reform and I plan to staff it with people like public defenders and people who have left that office because they didn't want to perpetuate the system." 

Aboushi claimed that she is the only candidate with experience going against large agencies like the NYPD and seen that individual officers were charged for crimes committed on the job. She expressed a determination to make sure the district attorney's office runs independently of law enforcement by "cleaning house" and installing both campaign and community partners.

After Orlins had earlier stated that her campaign was consulting with a team of experts, including a criminologist, to put together a list of misdemeanor charges that the office would still prosecute and that they had only added a handful of crimes to the list, Aboushi took a jab at her, saying that when one cuts the community out and hires expert criminologists to tell them about discriminatory aspects of the system they end up with unreliable responses because the data and facts they work with are manipulated. 

Orlins had said that under her leadership most misdemeanors would not be prosecuted, while Aboushi argued that the district attorney's problem is that it "overcharges felonies like it's giving out candy."

The conversation moved to holding police accountable despite the close relationship between the NYPD and the district attorney's office. Farhadian Weinstein, Bragg, and Florence all called for establishing a separate, independent police accountability unit. Farhadian Weinstein highlighted her work installing the conviction review unit while working for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. She was one of several authors of a report produced by the Brooklyn District Attorney's office and The Innocence Project that analyzed the first 20 exoneration cases, resulting in 25 exonerations from the review unit. The report also called out police and prosecutors for the damage caused. 

"Community demands are welcome because we have to work on this together because we are in an intolerable place," Farhadian Weinstein said. "All of us should feel ashamed to live in a city where some people feel safer when they see the police and some people feel less safe when they see the police and it starts with working together on solutions. It starts with honesty from the DA’s office." 

Bragg drew attention to the work he did at the Attorney General's office, saying he sued state police for excessive force, prosecuted an FBI agent for lying, and led partnerships with communities. As he said he did at the Attorney General's office, Bragg said he would create a unit staffed outside of the DA’s office composed of lawyers, social workers, and community members that would report to the public in order to hold law enforcement accountable.

Lang led with the endorsement she has received from Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, who was killed during a police stop. She advocated for partnering with the city's other agencies to investigate police-related fatalities, publishing investigations into police misconduct, and ensuring that every allegation is investigated. 

"One way to address police misconduct is to limit the amount of police contact in communities and that starts with community-based initiatives and with all of the strategies I previously described to shrink the criminal justice footprint," Lang said. "The district attorney's office also has to be active in NYPD training and policy."

Crotty, who appeared distracted at times during the event and whose politics seem furthest from that of the host groups, explained that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office already has a separate office to prosecute public corruption cases including police crimes. She said that office needs to be strengthened. Florence said that while there is already a separate office that prosecutes public corruption, it is highly ineffective. 

"Yes there is an existing independent unit and that's true, but we need to have a unit that does something and the way we're going to do that is by getting the information by partnering with community-based organizations," Florence said. 

Moderators shifted the conversation to how the Manhattan District Attorney’s office could handle exoneration cases. New York State has the third highest number of exoneration cases, with 303 people exonerated since 1989, they said. They asked candidates their opinion of Manhattan's conviction assessment unit and if, in addition to wrongful conviction cases, candidates would return to reviewing sentences that had arisen from cases involving jury discrimination or discredited forensic techniques, including those used in arson cases or cases built on bite marks. 

Bragg argued that the conviction integrity unit in Manhattan needs to be completely redone as an independent agency with open-file discovery. Florence echoed Bragg's sentiments, but also attempted to separate herself.

"Conviction integrity units are only as good as what they're willing to do and the current DA's office version is just a PR stunt and we have to call it out for what it is," Florence said. "I think any of the candidates here would have a better platform, mine though goes further than most."

Florence outlined her plan for a conviction integrity unit with independent leadership and an office staffed with attorneys who had never touched cases within the district attorney's office. She added that the office needs to be fully open to the fact of wrongful convictions as well as being open to reviewing cases where the thinking has changed, like cases involving marijuana. She said New York should be leading expungement efforts in cases where marijuana was involved in the charges.

Quart argued the Manhattan District Attorney's office will never be reliable when it comes to reviewing its own cases, regardless of who is elected. He called on New York State to establish its own conviction review agency. But acknowledging that a statewide review agency is unlikely, Quart outlined the rest of his thinking. 

"We have to go deeper and create a conviction integrity unit that looks broadly, not just at cases that have gone to trial, because as we know 98% of cases end in plea bargains, there is no trial transcript," Quart said. "We need to take a broad view on what we're second-looking at the DA's office, but real reform will only come with a statewide agency that creates a second look from the DA's office that secured the conviction in the first place."

Next, candidates were asked if they would support a pending bill to ban police deception during interrogations of suspects. Orlins was quick to say that she would support it and push for further interrogation protections. She stated that defense counsel should always be present during interrogations. Quart, Weinstein, Lang, Florence, Aboushi, Orlins, and Bragg all said they would support the bill. Crotty said that she would want to read the bill before committing, but that it "sounded good." 

Moderators then expressed concerns about charges brought against defendants based solely on police reports. They asked candidates how they would aim to resolve cases outside the courtroom. Orlins highlighted her career experience and sought to counter Aboushi's repeated claim that Aboushi is the only candidate in the race who has gone up against agencies like the NYPD. 

"I have time and time again seen circumstances where police reports are used as the only reason why someone is indicted, charged with a felony, removed from their home, had their lives destroyed, their families destroyed," Orlins said. "That's why we cannot rely solely on police officer testimony. This must be something that is a priority and as someone who has also gone up against the NYPD every day of my career I have routinely held the police accountable." 

Crotty disagreed with the question's premise that charges were brought solely based on police reports. She explained that indictments always occur after review by a grand jury, adding that the job of the district attorney is not to get convictions, but to get it right by proving cases either way with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Farhadian Weinstein agreed with other candidates that the district attorney's office cannot rely solely on police reports. 

"Of course we can't just routinely elevate or ever elevate a police report into an indictment. The police are our partners in public safety, we are not their instruments," Farhadian Weinstein said. "We have an independent ethical obligation to evaluate all of the evidence that comes to us, whether it's testimony, something recounted in a report, video documents, what have you, before we decide to take this case to the grand jury." 

Aboushi argued that the NYPD must be separate from prosecutors and stated that her opponents'  "follow the facts" approach is faulty, arguing that facts are often manipulated by officers. She stated that she would replace bureau chiefs and supervisors, returning to her promise of "cleaning house" at the DA’s office. She added that she would expand the decline-to-prosecute list. 

Attention then turned to parole reform, which moderators said District Attorney Vance has not been supportive enough of. They asked if candidates would support bills like the Less is More Act — which eliminates incarceration for the most technical parole violations and provides more avenues for an early end to parole — and the elder parole bill, which permits the Board of Parole to evaluate for parole all inmates over the age of 55 who have served at least 15 years in prison.

Aboushi said she had already signed on in support of both bills, adding that she would support reentry efforts by not prosecuting cases and diverting resources back to communities. Orlins reaffirmed her disavowal of the death penalty, including “death by incarceration” and committed to not seeking sentencing over 20 years under any circumstances. 

Florence also said that reentry efforts must start when people are charged and that reforms surrounding charging and sentencing are the first step to tackling questions of reentry. Quart echoed other candidates in supporting the elder parole bill and said that the Less is More bill is critical but doesn't go far enough.

"So many of the services provided under parole are useless fleecing of the taxpayer, waste of money, no social benefit really," Quart said. "I would push in Albany, as I already have, for greater reforms on the parole system."

Moderators then asked Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein to explain stances they had taken prior to the event stating that they would continue collecting information on and surveilling youth through the Manhattan District Attorney's office and support youth programming led by the NYPD, during which officers at times gain information to be used against youth in court. 

Bragg countered the question saying that he is not going to be using evidence gathered by the NYPD against youth, including the department’s gang database, which has long been subject to scrutiny as advocates have argued that it is racially discriminatory and uses overly-broad criteria to categorize youth as gang members, leading to long lists of suspected young men of color. There is also little transparency when it comes to how the NYPD gathers or uses the information.

"The gang database is garbage in, garbage out -- I won't be using it," Bragg said. "I will continue my community work. I'm a Sunday school teacher, I'm a Harlem little league coach, I'm going to evaluate folks who come to my office as whole people and I want them to be actively engaged in the work of the community."

Farhadian Weinstein committed to being vigilant that data collection systems are not being abused and working with advocates to make sure that they are being used responsibly. She did not disavow data collection and did not mention youth specifically in her response. 

"We should not confuse places where we put information and leads and whatever we are gathering with actual evidence of crimes. We have to interrogate and we have to really do the work before we transition," Weinstein said. "When it comes to the second part about communities, I think all of us do have to stay engaged in communities, including police officers, including law enforcement, which is why I did not think that we would want law enforcement and police officers to withdraw from being present and supportive of their communities, the communities in which they work."

Moderators then argued that most criminal justice reforms relate only to non-violent crimes, but that ending mass incarceration will require a broader approach. They criticized the fact that crimes like burglary are treated as violent crimes with harsher sentences attached, even though they often cause no physical harm to another person. They asked candidates if and how they would prevent long sentences for cases that are categorized as violent, but do not involve causing physical harm to another person. 

Lang emphasized that she would stop a reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing and cancel three-strike rules that call for mandatory life imprisonment if someone is convicted of a serious violent felony and has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts. 

“We all know that ending mass incarceration, as we must, means doing things drastically differently when it comes to violent crime. It means stopping the prosecution of non-violent offences as violent, including for example burglary in the third degree, it also though means where there is some measure of violence reducing the length of sentences so that means stopping the reliance on mandatory minimums, that means stopping the reliance on the three-strikes law, and it means assessing cases and not bringing the egregiously long sentences that we have seen in the past that have contributed to mass incarceration,” Lang said. “Doing that requires that we build out a robust responsive set of protocols that includes availing ourselves of the rich community based resources that we have in New York City to pair people appropriately with responses and also develop a robust set of restorative practices to help make everyone whole.”

Bragg also discussed careful review of charging, saying that his own brother was charged unfairly with gun possession in a case that should not have been brought at all or at most at a lower level. He called for sentencing look-back procedures and more robust restorative justice options. 

Aboushi said she would avoid charging felonies to avoid triggering mandatory minimums, and create a sentencing review unit to look at all sentences beyond 10 years, sentences involving people who are immunocompromised, and those at the end of their sentence to ensure early release wherever possible.

Crotty stated that she supports not charging felonies when it comes to burglary in particular, in some cases. She added that she supported putting misdemeanors on every indictment, in order to give district attorneys leeway to act as necessary based on the facts and circumstances of their case. 

Moderators moved the discussion to interpersonal violence charges, stating that all candidates, with the exception of Crotty, had committed to discontinuing current internal policies preventing assistant district attorneys from considering alternatives to incarceration based on charges and instead allow for community mediation, mediation programs, or restorative justice options. They asked candidates to assess the current district attorney's office and explain what they would do differently.

"The problem was and continues to be these blanket policies which disqualify people without knowing anything about them, that has never been my approach," said Florence. "I have always looked independently at the survivor of the crime and the person accused of the crime and we need to fashion our disposition based on those facts."

Lang cited tremendous promise of restorative justice, adding that it has to be scaled so that it is implemented system-wide. She said that in the past the district attorney's office approach to restorative justice had been too "ad hoc" and that whether or not defendants were paired with services was based on guesswork. She called for restorative justice options to be greatly expanded and applied with the input of clinicians and social workers. 

Crotty reminded attendees that she left the Manhattan DA's office in 2006 and that when she worked there the only alternative to incarceration was probation, which she regularly sought when the facts dictated. She added that she has been a trained mediator and completed a course from the New York Peace Institute, a non-profit conflict resolution organization. 

"I think mediation and restorative justice are really the way to go in cases where the victim and the defendant are known to each other, and there is not a condition of extreme violence, where they can work it out between themselves and not with the district attorney's office," Crotty said. "I applaud restorative justice when the facts are appropriate for it."

Moderators then called attention to Bragg’s and Farhadian Weinstein's work as prosecutors for the Southern District of New York and the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, respectively. The moderators asked what had been done wrong when it comes to prosecuting violent crimes in those offices and what these candidates would do differently as Manhattan District Attorney.

"I dealt with a case of a man convicted in the early ‘90s for three robberies he committed in the course of a week, he stole $100 worth of stuff. He was addicted to crack cocaine and he was homeless when he did this, and he got 32 to 65 years because these were classified as violent crimes because in two of them he had a knife and in one of them he threw a punch," Weinstein said. "We did what we could, I built the first post-conviction justice bureau in the country and we supported him for clemency and parole and he ultimately did get parole after 25 years, but of course that's too little too late. So we start with a reckoning of a case like that and we have to go back and say ‘are we charging properly?’"

Bragg highlighted that as a member of the public corruption unit at the Attorney General's office his work focused on prosecuting corrupt politicians and even an FBI agent, rather than prosecuting violent crimes. However, he stated that in the violent crime prosecution cases he did work on, centering the response around the trauma of survivors was something that could be improved upon across the board. 

Moderators singled out Orlins, Quart, and Aboushi as the three candidates who had laid out the clearest commitments to reducing incarceration in general. The three were asked how they would approach serious interpersonal violence cases and how they would tell if their approach to decarceration was working.

"We will evaluate the cases based on the numbers and we'll make sure we're reaching our goals of actual decarceration," Quart said.

He added that he would commit to an 80% reduction in pretrial incarceration, additionally he would push for legislation in Albany that would eliminate cash bail. Orlins said a carceral approach to even cases classified as violent are not helping anyone. She said the district attorney's office should create reforms across all cases regardless of their classification and that this is the only way to actually keep communities safe.

"While I think I was criticized earlier for having experts on my campaign, I am very grateful to have a criminologist who evaluates all of the data, all of the arrests in New York over the last decade or so and it supplements my institutional knowledge of being a public defender and working for over a decade in the trenches in the courtroom," Orlins said, referencing Aboushi’s criticism from earlier in the event. "So I know that a majority of the cases brought are misdemeanors and these are not cases that we need to be worried about."

Aboushi said she would partner with organizations like Court Watch to ensure assistant district attorneys are compliant and that there is a direct line of communication between the defense bar and the district attorney's office.

"There can't be accountability and we can't shrink the footprint of this office unless we let the public in," Aboushi said. "That is the only way this is going to work."

The discussion moved to collateral consequences of indictments, including immigration consequences. Crotty expressed support for immigrants and highlighted her experience getting defendants ready for credible fear interviews so that they could acquire asylum status.

"Immigration consequences are only one of thousands of consequences that attach to criminal conviction," Lang said. "Under my administration assistant district attorneys will review all collateral consequences at the charging stage and every stage thereafter to ensure that no collateral consequences unduly impact the people who are charged."

Lang added that the district attorney's office must consider immigration impacts on victims as well as defendants. She highlighted that she was an advocate for keeping ICE out of courtrooms two years before the law changed. Florence struck a similar note and said she had built trust with communities and worked with organizations to consider collateral consequences. She also supported considering these consequences starting at the charging phase and maintained that defendants should never be asked their immigration status. 

Lang said she would catalog the full slate of collateral consequences and ensure assistant district attorneys are aware of what they are. Crotty said consideration of these consequences needs to go into each and every case, and said she has been doing that for the past 13 years. 

The moderator directed the next question to Aboushi, Farhadian Weinstein, Quart, and Orlins, each of whom, the moderator said, has committed to making district attorney office policies and procedures open to the public, including data regarding charging, plea offers, and sentencing. 

"You can't have public trust without transparency and I don't trust prosecutors to watch prosecutors just like we don't trust officers to hold officers accountable," Aboushi said. "Data and transparency and the collection and analysis is going to be important if we're really going to transform this office and protect Black and brown communities from being the face of crime."

Orlins said that her career as a public defender has made her intent on creating data transparency within the district attorney's office. She shared that she had a client who the Manhattan District Attorney wouldn't deter from offering a 90-day split, meaning 90 days in jail followed by five years probation, even though the defendant was a single mother willing to take a plea of the charge in order to receive probation only. Orlins lamented not being able to find any precedent for receiving only probation on that particular charge and had to accept the word of the district attorney's office saying they don't offer that. She resented having to dig for information among colleagues to determine if certain offers were being made. 

"It is completely unjust, it does not do anything but perpetuate the racist nature of the system and that is why we will be fully transparent with all of our data," Orlins said. 

"Our core mission is to treat like cases alike so we need the data to tell us if two people charged with a crime get different plea agreements, if two victims of the same crime are being dealt with differently," Farhadian Weinstein said. "You asked why haven't DAs offices done this before. I think that there is a culture of secrecy which has something to do with protecting discretion."

The next round of questions moderators handed over to people who have been in contact with the Manhattan District Attorney's office. Anna of the Freedom Agenda shared that she has lived in Manhattan for 37 years and that her son was detained pretrial on Rikers Island for six years  before accepting a plea deal and serving four more years at a prison upstate. She asked Lang, Quart, and Bragg if there will be any exception to their policies against pre-trial jailing or canceling bail. She also asked if they would institute alternatives to bail like electronic monitoring or supervision. 

Lang expressed her commitment to end cash bail and build out supportive release infrastructure. Bragg said he is the only candidate who has posted bail and supported a relative while they were out on bail, adding that he too opposes cash bail and would provide supportive services to those awaiting trial. Quart also reaffirmed his commitment to ending cash bail.

"We cannot end cash bail and replace that with expanding remand that's not progress that's the antithesis of progress," Quart said. "We're going to reconnect people to their communities so they can make rational decisions in their neighborhoods with their families about their future." 

None of the candidates asked addressed the question of alternatives to bail like surveillance or electronic monitoring.  

Sojourner, a member from Survived and Punished, next posed a question to Farhadian Weinstein, Orlins, and Florence. She shared that she is a survivor of sexual violence, member of Survived and Punished, and member of an abolitionist defense team pushing back against the Manhattan District Attorney's office's prosecution of survivors. She introduced Tracy McCarter, a Black woman, nurse, mother, grandmother, and survivor who they said is being prosecuted by District Attorney Vance’s office after her estranged husband came to her apartment, demanded to be let in, and then attacked her. The altercation led to McCarter, in what she said was self-defense, stabbing her estranged husband once in the chest, killing him. Sojourner asked candidates if they would commit to dropping charges against her and not prosecuting all survivors of sexual violence including those criminalized for their acts of survival. 

Farhadian Weinstein started by saying that she cannot make a commitment about an open case in the Manhattan District Attorney's office, but stated that she stands with survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She added that she led the program at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office where the office reviewed sentences issued against defendants like McCarter. 

Orlins also said it would be inappropriate to comment on McCarter's case specifically, but argued that she is the only candidate who has represented a client and utilized the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in order to get a reduced sentence in court. 

"I think prosecutors here want to say that they stand with survivors, they care about survivors, but what they don't recognize is that those are the people they end up prosecuting and seeking years and years on," Orlins said in reference to several of her competitors. 

Florence said her experience had included fighting alongside survivors, which meant sometimes taking non-traditional approaches. For example, not prosecuting assault but instead prosecuting another charge so that victims did not have to testify.

The final question of the evening came from Eileen M, a member of Vocal-NY who explained that she had been prosecuted in Manhattan and threatened with an extremely long, illegal sentence by an assistant district attorney if she went to trial. As a result, she felt her only option was to take a plea deal. She asked Quart, Crotty, and Aboushi how they would eliminate bullying practices to force plea agreements. 

Quart said he would start with sentencing reform, including a policy to stop assistant district attorneys from seeking sentences exceeding 20 years. As for bullying assistant district attorneys, Quart said he would create a higher degree of regulation and real ramifications for that behavior, including termination. Crotty pointed to a mentality change she would institute in the office, focused on getting cases right and looking at the facts instead of securing convictions. 

"If you do it right and investigate every case you will get fair results," Crotty said. "The mandate from the leadership is to get it right and not to convict." 

Aboushi outlined a slate of new checks and balances that she would introduce to the district attorney's office to ensure predatory practices are weeded out. 

"We simply need to create an office-wide policy that people will not be penalized for invoking their constitutional rights," Aboushi said. "I will have checks and balances, i.e. the public, PD, civil rights attorneys organizations that are going to watch ADAs who engage in this behavior will report directly to me on a consistent basis to identify ADAs who are engaging in this problematic behavior." 

Earlier in the evening, candidates underwent a "lightning round" of questions that were either yes/no or only required a few words to answer. When it came to defunding the police, Crotty and Farhadian Weinstein were the only candidates to respond with a no. Florence said she couldn't answer yes or no because she didn't believe in the word "defund." 

All of the candidates, except Crotty, have pledged to release a list of charges that won't be prosecuted. Lang, Aboushi, Quart, and Florence said their lists were posted. Farhadian Weinstein, Bragg, and Orlins said their lists would be released shortly. Crotty said she would not have a list. 

On the NYPD gang database, Farhadian Weinstein and Crotty were the only candidates who said they would not completely ban its use. Crotty said she would use it only based on convictions. All candidates agreed on ending the trial penalty and most agreed on eliminating the vice squad, which handles crimes relating to gambling, narcotics, and, most often, prostitution. Farhadian Weinstein said vice should be replaced with a different part of the police department and Crotty said that the vice squad would stop conducting undercover prostitution investigations under her leadership, but as to the other elements of vice she was unsure of what the question was referring to.

by Emily Mason for Gotham Gazette

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Activists Press Manhattan District Attorney Candidates on How Far They’ll Go on Reform Tue, 02 Feb 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Manhattan District Attorney Candidates' Fundraising from Within the Borough Varies Widely

top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Tali Farhadian Weinstein; bottom: Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

Eight candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for Manhattan District Attorney this year as it becomes increasingly likely that incumbent District Attorney Cy Vance, a third-term Democrat, will not run for reelection. As the candidates appeal to voters across a variety of platforms and appearances, outlining their resumes and plans for the office, they have been trying to draw distinctions about the support they are receiving ahead of the all-important June primary. These efforts also included how some touted recent fundraising totals at the mid-January filing deadline with the State Board of Elections.

A deeper look at the Manhattan District Attorney candidates’ latest campaign finance reports shows a wide variance in contributions and contributors from Manhattan itself. The numbers help indicate what kind of support candidates are seeing in the borough they hope to represent as the top prosecutor and law enforcement officer.

While some candidates may have raised far more money for the race, the source of their fundraising is a different story. Some candidates have fewer but wealthier donors, while others have droves of small-dollar supporters. Some candidates’ fundraising has largely come from donors within Manhattan, and yet others have far fewer contributors who are residents of the borough. 

The eight candidates are former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys Lucy Lang, Liz Crotty, and Diana Florence; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; Assemblymember Dan Quart; public defender Eliza Orlins; and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and a former federal prosecutor. 

The top fundraiser in the race has been Farhadian Weinstein, who worked under then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and has received his endorsement. Weinstein has raised a whopping $2.26 million for the race in total. Of that, about $1.74 million, or about 77%, came from donors within Manhattan.

“In just six months since declaring her candidacy, Tali also raised more than previously collected by all other candidates, combined,” said Jennifer Blatus, a campaign spokesperson, in a statement. “The fact that she has more support from Manhattanites than any other candidate shows that people living and working in Manhattan know Tali Farhadian Weinstein is the candidate who will deliver on justice and fairness, and – critically – safety to the borough.”

But unlike the higher percentage of total money raised that came from Manhattan, as of the recent filing, Farhadian Weinstein had 2,361 donors, with 1,170 of them Manhattan residents, or about 49.5%. 

Bragg is the next highest overall fundraiser, having pulled in a total of more than $1.33 million, of which about 58% or just over $770,000 came from Manhattan donors. But he also has vastly more individual donors, both in and out of the borough, topping out at 3,893 in sum, including 1,973 from within Manhattan, about 51%. 

“We are excited by the energy, enthusiasm, and support we are building across Manhattan resulting in receiving more than 50% more donations from Manhattan than any other candidate, while being the only candidate to get 100% of our donations from individuals, and not a dime from corporations, police unions, or lawyers who have had a case before the Manhattan District Attorney in the last four years,” said Richard Fife, a spokesperson for Bragg’s campaign. “We are the only campaign that continues to grow, and every single day we are building the support we need to win this race to transform the Manhattan DA office to make us safer by ending racial disparities, increasing police accountability, and delivering one standard of justice for all.”

Orlins raised nearly $600,000 for her campaign, of which about $163,000, or 27%, came from residents of Manhattan. Though she had the most donors of any campaign, an enormous 7,332, 1,294 were from Manhattan, or only about 17.6% (though still a slightly higher raw number of Manhattan contributions than Farhadian Weinstein). Orlins has something of a national following given she appeared on two seasons of the reality show Survivor as well as on a season of The Amazing Race.

“Because Eliza is publicly and fiercely committed to fighting for the people of Manhattan and overhauling a system that punishes the poor, communities of color, LGBTQIA+ people and so many others for simply existing, her message resonates with people across the country,” said Daniel McNamara, Orlins’ campaign manager, in a statement. “Manhattan can lead the way in implementing much-needed reforms in our criminal legal system, and people see that Eliza is the one to lead that charge.”

Quart has accumulated more than $1.25 million for his campaign, much of which has come through transfers from previous city and state campaign accounts. In total, according to his campaign, about $690,000 or 55% came from Manhattanites. He had a total of 813 donors, and 512 were Manhattan residents, about 63%.

“We are extremely proud of the momentum our campaign is building,” said a spokesperson for Quart’s campaign. “Voters and donors from across Manhattan are joining Dan Quart, as they trust that as our next District Attorney, he will fight to protect all New Yorkers and dispense justice fairly by focusing the Office’s resources on major offenses and violent crimes, while ending the unjust prosecution of low level offenses that all too often unfairly target the most vulnerable among us.”

Aboushi has raised about $771,000 in total, including about $81,000, or only about 10.5%, from within Manhattan. Her total number of donors was not available on the state Board of Elections website and the campaign could not provide the number.

“In the last 6 months, the donations that we have received from Manhattan residents has been predominantly small-dollar contributions — unlike other people's mega Wall Street donors,” said Carina Chacon, a spokesperson for Aboushi’s campaign, in a message. “In fact less than 10% of them are over $200. All of this even as Tahanie is not accepting contributions from corporate PAC’s, real estate developers, or law enforcement. These numbers are telling of Tahanie’s fundraising efforts and the attention, both local and national, that our campaign is receiving.”

Lang, who was also executive director of the Manhattan DA Academy under Vance and more recently led the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has raised more than $716,000 for her race, including nearly $369,000 from Manhattan, about 51.4%. She had 861 donors, of which 372 were from Manhattan, or about 43.2%.

“We are proud that in only five months our campaign has nearly doubled the first filing period of all of but one candidate and out-raised the majority of the field in this race, demonstrating a broad base of support among Manhattan residents and those most impacted by the justice system,” said Matthew Koos, Lang’s campaign manager, in a statement. 

Florence has raised about $355,000, including nearly $163,000, or about 45.7%, from Manhattan donors. She had 620 donors and 207 of those, about 33.3%, were from Manhattan. "Our people-powered campaign is thrilled to have the backing of thousands of workers, neighbors, friends, and those who believe that this office for too long has had a concierge service of justice for the rich and powerful," Florence said in a statement. "Our donations speak for itself— more than half of our contributions came from small donors and a third came from labor. While some of my opponents' contributions come from monied interests such as big real estate and Wall Street, I vow to go after crimes of power, and stand up for every day New Yorkers who have been harmed and overlooked by this DA."

Crotty, who has for years since leaving the DA’s office been practicing criminal defense work, has raised a total of about $279,000, of which just over $200,000 or 72% came from within Manhattan. She had 419 donors as of the recent filing, including 209 from Manhattan, about 50%.

“I think it’s a testament to the solidity of our support,” said Michael Oliva, a spokesperson in a brief phone interview. “Liz isn’t running for special interests, she’s not running to be the flavor of the month and she’s not running for people who don’t live in the city. She’s running because she wants to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Manhattanites and their families. She’s running because she’ll make it her business to get justice for victims of crime. She’s running to bring our city back from the ashes of the pandemic and to a better future. These are the priorities that she holds dear.” 

Asked about other candidates who had a smaller percentage of donations from Manhattan, Oliva said, “I think that it’s not always about how much you raise but who gives you the money. And I think that when the majority of your contributions come from within the borough it shows that they people from within the borough are the ones who are responsive to your message. [Liz is] running to represent the people of New York County. She’s not running to represent the people of Kansas or the people of California or Florida...It’s really about where your support comes from in the long run.” 

The Manhattan District Attorney Democratic primary is in June, the general election is in the fall.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a statement from Diana Florence.

Manhattan District Attorney Candidates' Fundraising from Within the Borough Varies Widely Thu, 28 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Public Defenders Release Evaluation of Manhattan District Attorney Candidates mda graph 5bd cropped

The Five Borough Defender graph of Manhattan DA candidates (full version below)

A coalition of New York City's public defenders has released a report analyzing the campaign policies of the Manhattan District Attorney candidates vying to replace incumbent Cy Vance, Jr., and their plans to implement those policies. Vance is unlikely to seek reelection and eight Democrats are running in the June primary.

The new analysis from Five Boro Defenders was conducted through the group's decarceral lens and based on criteria that would seek to shrink the role of both prosecutors and prisons in the criminal justice system. The eight candidates were ranked based on how "harmful" they would be to the communities represented by public defenders -- typically low-income New Yorkers, disproportionately people of color, and often already involved in the criminal legal system -- and how ready they appear to accomplish their stated platforms.

The coalition found Eliza Orlins, a public defender with ten years at the Legal Aid Society, and Dan Quart, the five-term Democratic Assembly member representing the Upper East Side, the two candidates likely to be both least harmful and most effective in implementing their policies as Manhattan's top prosecutor. On the other end of the spectrum outlined by the defenders -- and the closest to Vance who occupies the extreme lower end of the evaluation -- are Liz Crotty, a former Manhattan prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who worked most recently as counsel for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

In the middle are several career prosecutors and a civil rights attorney who Five Boro Defenders found to have some combination of interest in reducing the power of the office, preference for alternatives to incarceration, and knowledge of the technical and political landscape at stake for an incoming DA -- but not necessarily all three.

Five Boro Defenders, which identifies itself in the report as "adversaries of the prosecutor and students of abolition," is careful not to call the rankings "endorsements."

"This race is interesting because we have a lot of candidates calling themselves progressive, whereas in interviews, in their statements and policy papers, they are not actually progressive," Takiya Wheeler, a public defender with Legal Aid Society who worked on the Five Boro Defenders report, told Gotham Gazette.

With protests erupting across the country last summer in the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, "diverting from the prison industrial complex is now something that the world is beginning to look at," she said.

"A lot of people are watching this race," she said, noting an emerging cohort of reform-minded prosecutors nationwide, like George Gascon in Los Angeles and Kimberly Foxx in Chicago.

The report is the third such election guide from the coalition and comes as the race for the Democratic nomination for Manhattan District Attorney heats up, with most of the candidates set to appear at a reform-focused forum Wednesday evening hosted by a large coalition of activist and other groups. It also comes amid a growing movement to minimize the traditional nodes of the penal system, from police enforcement to imprisonment, and a rise in shootings and murders in New York City.

The eight Democratic candidates were reviewed based on their level of commitment to holding prosecutors accountable and reducing their budgets, sentencing that avoids incarceration, ending cash bail and pretrial detention, and upholding the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The group also looked at candidates' dedication (or lack thereof) to ameliorating systemic racism, holding police officers accountable, "ending the criminalization of poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse," and "correcting past harms."

"We believe Eliza Orlins has a slightly higher degree of commitment to reducing the harm perpetuated by carceral prosecution as well as a deeper understanding of the systemic racism that pervades all aspects of the system, while Dan Quart presented a slightly more nuanced understanding of the way the system is put together and more detailed plans for how to take it apart," reads a press release accompanying the report, reviewed by Gotham Gazette just ahead of its public release.

Orlins, the only public defender in the race, is a former member of Five Boro Defenders who left the coalition when she stepped into the district attorney race, according to a disclaimer in the report. She supports a smaller district attorney office and 50% reduction in the NYPD budget, among the largest reductions supported by any candidate. The coalition believes Orlins has "a deep understanding of the damage mass incarceration has caused Black and Brown communities," stemming from her time as a public defender, though she does not have strong ties to local organizers and community-based organizations, the report states.

Quart, similarly, had a strong decarceral platform and history of championing criminal justice reforms in Albany, like changes to bail and discovery statutes and the legalization of "gravity knives," the criminalization of which has ensnared working class New Yorkers of color in the criminal legal system. The report says his familiarity with legislative and budgetary processes, and knowledge of the discretionary powers of the district attorney make him "unique among the candidates."

The authors of the report want to see the status quo of punishment transformed, from the traditionally familial relationship between prosecutors and police to the role of district attorneys in supervising individuals post-trial. In some areas, the report chastises candidates for "buy[ing] into the criminal punishment system" as is the case with Alvin Bragg, a former Deputy Attorney General in New York, who told the coalition he would not minimize the district attorney’s powers. Nevertheless, the group appreciated his commitment not to prosecute many "broken windows" lower-level violations and his understanding of how to change criminal court.

On the flip-side, Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights lawyer in her family's firm, "had a more profound commitment to decarceration" and supported minimizing the office, according to the press release, but in interviews with the defenders "frequently lacked a clear understanding of the mechanics of the criminal courts and a plan for accomplishing these objectives."

manhattan da candidates on public defenders gridAmong the "most harmful" and least ready to execute reform plans on the Five Boro Defenders' list, the coalition found Tali Farhadian Weinstein -- who has raised the most money in the field and has garnered some high-profile endorsements -- to be "especially dangerous." The defenders questioned her self-styling as a "progressive prosecutor" based on her deference in interviews to federal sentencing policies, which the coalition view as detrimental to poor communities and people of color. "During our interview, she generally refused to make categorical commitments which we presented as solutions for systemic change and made clear a desire to maintain the discretionary ability to prosecute low-level offenses," the report states, noting she does not have a list of charges she would decline to prosecute, unlike other candidates.

Being "the only candidate who doesn't self-identify as a progressive or decarceral prosecutor," Crotty was also rebuffed by the coalition of public defenders. The group was alarmed by what it said was her myopic view of the district attorney's role in perpetuating racist structures within the criminal legal system. In her interview with the coalition, Crotty said she would continue to seek jail time for some misdemeanors, a stance other candidates are moving away from.

Both Lucy Lang and Diana Florence are former Assistant District Attorneys under Vance, and were viewed more favorably by Five Boro Defenders than Farhadian Weinstein and Crotty, but received demerits for putting forth only "modest" proposals for reform. In Florence's case, the group gave weight to her resignation from the district attorney’s office early last year for not disclosing evidence in a case.

Primary elections will be held in June, with a nine-day early voting period June 13-20 and election day June 22. The Democratic nominee for Manhattan District Attorney is all but assured to win the general election in the heavily-blue borough.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Public Defenders Release Evaluation of Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Tue, 26 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Debate Resumes and Reform Credentials Gotham Gazette:

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Tali Farhadian Weinstein Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

The eight candidates running in the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney convened virtually on Thursday for a panel discussion to offer their plans for a reimagined District Attorney's office. While all the candidates are talking about extensive reform, some want to go far further than others, and the candidates’ resumes inform those distinctions and, in combination, offer significant differences for voters to choose from in the upcoming June primary.

The candidates are running to succeed Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, a Democrat who was first elected to the post in 2009 and has not declared whether or not he will run for reelection, but has not appeared at early events or begun significant fundraising with under five months until primary day. Thursday's forum — hosted by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy — allowed each of the candidates to highlight their experiences and key objectives, revealing differences among them as they moved through topics including bail reform, discovery reform, the 2020 increase in shootings in Manhattan, and plans for holding members of the NYPD accountable, among other topics.

The candidates participating in the forum, all eight of the Democrats running active campaigns, included: civil rights attorney Tahani Aboushi; former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; State Assemblymember Dan Quart; public defender Eliza Orlins; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney and a former federal prosecutor; and former Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys Liz Crotty, Lucy Lang, and Diana Florence.

Perhaps indicative of the turn of the calendar into 2021 and the rapidly-approaching vote, several candidates appeared somewhat more pointed in talking about their competitors or trying to differentiate themselves to voters.

Throughout the conversation Bragg led with his upbringing in Central Harlem to differentiate himself from the pack, highlighting his personal experiences with drug-related violence, police brutality, and the prison system. He additionally pointed to his management experience overseeing 12,000 people while working at the attorney general’s office.

"We've heard people talk about community partnerships, about their clients, about their legislation. This is my life," Bragg said. "I'm the only one here who has lived an entire life in a neighborhood that's been overpoliced, Black and brown folks have been my neighbors, my family, my loved ones my entire life — so I've paid bail, I've woken up in the middle of the night with collect calls from prison. I've lived this."

As they have throughout the race, Aboushi and Orlins took the most progressive and far left stances, including when, in response to a yes or no question, they were the only two candidates to support cutting the NYPD budget by half. Aboushi called for overarching reforms to dismantle the prison industrial complex and hold police accountable. She also pointed to running a community-led campaign as an indication of how she would manage the district attorney's office.

Orlins made efforts to juxtapose her career as a public defender with the prosecution records of the other candidates.

"I'm the only public defender in this race and I'm the only one with both the authentic commitment and the experience to transform this system," Orlins said. “The difference between me and everyone else in this race is clear. Anyone can recite progressive talking points. I hope that you'll all look beyond the answers in this forum and look at who has walked back policies after being criticized by public defenders, look who is endorsed by prosecutors who have locked up children of color using gang conspiracy laws and led to their deaths."

Florence presented herself as the candidate for the working class, pointing to her career of prosecuting crimes of power and holding the wealthy accountable.

"In choosing your next DA comes ultimately down to the work and who can get the job down," Florence said. "My vision comes directly from my work because I've done it. More than a dozen labor unions have endorsed me because they know that no one in this race has my record of standing up to power and there is no one who has fought harder on behalf of working people."

The forum started with a discussion of New York's major bail reform passed at the state level in 2019 and subsequent partial rollback in 2020. Lawmakers had eliminated cash bail for 90% of low-level arrests, drastically reducing the number of people held in jail before trial. Certain violations were re-added to the list of bailable offenses in changes made last year, drawing the ire of some reformers, including several of the candidates for Manhattan District Attorney, though not going far enough in the other direction for many law enforcement officials and more moderate or conservative critics of the changes made previously.

All candidates agreed on abolishing cash bail for misdemeanor arrests, however Crotty highlighted that the question of cash bail becomes more complicated when looking at defendants with established criminal records who may pose public safety risks. 

"There comes a point when you have to look at what the scenario is. What is the rap sheet, what is the likelihood that they will come back to jail, what is the public safety risk? These are the questions that should really be asked of people," Crotty said.

Florence attempted in several ways to establish herself as a defender of the working class, including by pledging to work towards a system that would ask bail of the wealthy who have ample means to flee, while utilizing alternative pre-trial options for the majority of cases. She cited a text messaging system as the least restrictive cash bail alternative or electronic monitoring as a more restrictive choice. Farhadian Weinstein stated that ideally there would be no cash bail, but added that there did need to be a mechanism to hold people before trial who are a risk to others in the smallest number of cases.

"We must abolish cash bail; it doesn't make us safer. I've had clients in on $250 bail that may as well have been a million," Orlins said. "It simply should be for the purpose of assuring someone's return to court and we're being sold this false choice between public safety and incarceration."

Quart added that the current system of cash bail continues to disproportionately impact communities of color.

"If you don't end cash bail, if you ask for cash bail then you are going to allow for a system of judicial discretion and a dangerous standard," Quart said. "We know that these twin issues are the things that led to nearly 78% of people in Rikers Island being people of color."

The conversation quickly moved to discovery reform and the same pattern of sweeping change, followed by some rollbacks that occurred in 2019 and 2020 at the state level. The rollbacks allow prosecutors more time before turning over evidence against the defendant to their counsel. Previously, the prosecution was required to hand all evidence over to the defense within 15 days after arraignment, but the new legislation allows prosecutors between 20 and 35 days.

Lang, Florence, Farhadian Weinstein, and Crotty all advocated for open-file discovery, but voiced a need for utilizing protection orders for witnesses who may be put at risk through participating in the prosecution. Bragg, Orlins, and Aboushi all called for open-file discovery with extremely cautious use of protection orders, arguing that the orders are often abused by prosecutors looking to withhold evidence from the defense. 

"We need to also talk about abuse of protection orders by prosecutors. I've seen that as a defense lawyer, I've seen that as a civil rights practitioner," Bragg said. "We have to talk about true public safety concerns and not let prosecutors abuse protection orders."

Starker divisions among candidates arose when asked about the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, an organizational quirk of New York City and, apparently, the only office of its kind in the nation. The office is responsible for prosecuting only narcotics offenses across the five boroughs and acts separately from the five district attorney offices. The office is known for a 'tough on crime' approach and wields a $25 million budget.

Crotty defended the Special Narcotics Prosecutor as vital and important, stating that it goes after big fish. She rejected the notion that the office pursues low-level drug crimes, the prosecution of which is often attributed as one cause of mass incarceration.

"Special Narcotics does not go after street dealers, that's not what they do. They go after the big top players in the drug industry on top of going after doctors who over-prescribe," Crotty said. "I think we have to look at how drugs work and where they're targeting their efforts. It's not as much on street crime as everyone likes to say. It's really looking from the top, from the doctors offices and looking at how drugs have infiltrated our city in different ways."

Aboushi and Bragg took a harder line against the office. Aboushi supports abolishing it and said she would remove the 57 Assistant District Attorneys employed there from the Manhattan DA’s office. Bragg said the special narcotics office prosecutes kinds of cases that he would avoid and categorized narcotics as a public health issue. He added that a non-elected special narcotics prosecutor should not be handling those cases, the elected district attorney should.

"I am in favor of doing away with the Special Narcotics Prosecutor's Office and I would also withdraw my ADAs from that office," Aboushi said. It's just another layer of mass incarceration and prosecution that disproportionately falls on communities of color and one way to allow jurisdiction under the DA's office is to stop spending hundreds of thousands of dollars prosecuting poverty and issues that really belong from a public health department."

Another source of concern during the pandemic has been a roughly 100% increase in shootings in New York City in 2020 compared to 2019. Some, including NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, have connected the spike with bail reform, a claim that is largely unsubstantiated by the data. Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed the shutdown of court trials, but that has also been debunked. The mayor has at times pointed to the broader social implications of the pandemic, disruptions to daily life, major loss of work, and other changes to patterns in the city, as a significant potential cause.

Weinstein called getting the shootings under control one of the top priorities of the district attorney. She advocated for cracking down on gun trafficking and for bolstering community resources to curb the issue. Florence, Bragg, and Aboushi joined in the call for investing in community resources to combat gun violence. Aboushi renewed calls to resist calls for throwing many more people in jail and instead focused on the NYPD budget.

"These statistics are alarming but we can't allow this to serve as an opportunity to maintain our systems of mass incarceration and mass criminalization of communities of color," Aboushi said. "We have to understand that these statistics are present while we have a recklessly bloated NYPD budget as well as a recklessly bloated district attorney budget. For those who are accustomed to falling back on the only thing they have been trained to do — police and prosecute more — we have to do something different. People need resources, we are in a pandemic where bad situations have only turned worse."

Crotty again separated herself from the pack by taking a more moderate stance, insisting that a key way to get guns off New York City streets is through the work of the NYPD. She argued that guns are coming into New York in private vehicles, making it necessary for properly trained NYPD officers to investigate the sources. She added that New Yorkers need to be clear that there will be serious consequences for illegal gun ownership.

Candidates also answered the question of how to approach prosecuting members of the NYPD. After members of the Minneapolis police department killed George Floyd, New York State passed the George Floyd Policing Act and New York City passed a law that went even further outlawing chokeholds by law enforcement, as well as other acts that could restrict a suspect’s breathing. Police unions and their allies have strongly opposed that law, and District Attorneys in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island have indicated that in some cases they may not prosecute certain instances where the law might be violated incidentally or when an officer’s life appears in danger, according to the moderator.

Bragg and Weinstein laid out plans to establish free-standing police accountability units that would report directly to them while Orlins and Aboushi highlighted their experiences going after police for misconduct.

Quart was the only candidate to call for bringing in an independent prosecutor to evaluate the facts of each serious injury case to determine whether or not an offending officer should be prosecuted. He argued that there is a conflict of interest between the district attorney's office and the NYPD given the two offices work in tandem on countless cases. Aboushi strongly disagreed with pulling in a special counsel and instead advocated for the district attorney's office handling the cases directly. 

"I'm the only candidate here that has gotten officers terminated, disciplined, or criminally charged for their conduct and that's because I have the guts to do it and I put no badge or bank account above the law."

Crotty struck a different note on police accountability, highlighting both her experiences defending individual police officers and suing the NYPD in excessive force cases.

"I think we have to remember that NYPD are people,” she said, “and they should be looked at as people and when they break the law they should be held accountable and they should be held accountable in every instance."

Candidates moved from police accountability to how to hold perpetrators accountable for racially-charged and racist incidents. In December, Miya Ponsetto was caught on camera tackling a Black teenager in a SoHo hotel after falsely accusing him of stealing her iPhone. After rousing public outcry, Ponsetto was charged with third-degree attempted robbery, grand larceny, acting in a manner injurious to a child and two counts of attempted assault. Similarly, in May, Amy Cooper called 911 on a Black bird-watcher in Central Park and falsely accused him of assaulting her. Cooper was charged several weeks later with filing a false police report. The moderator asked candidates how they would handle prosecuting incidents like these.

"I am a Palestinean Muslim woman in New York City. I know about hate crimes very well," Aboushi said. "Not only did Trump run on a platform of banning Muslims he tried it and we fought it. While I understand the pain, humiliation and frustration of hate crimes that are not only a process of the DA's office, but are actually widely accepted by people across this country as we've seen by the attack on the capitol, I am committed to decarceration. We can't incarcerate our way out of hate and we're not going to incarcerate our way to education. We need to invest in communities we need to promote education."

Bragg indicated more willingness to prosecute hate crimes and stated his belief that the district attorney's office could both charge offenders for hate crimes and still be committed to restorative justice.

"All of those cases came from a place of hate and need to be [prosecuted], but also in Manhattan," Bragg said. "We have to call hate hate and you can charge something and still have a restorative justice process, but if we don't document and call hate hate the next person who does it will be emboldened."

Florence cautioned that prosecuting hate crimes cannot be motivated only by public outcry, but must be proactively handled.

"Hate crimes need to be taken seriously and it can't be when its public outcry," Florence said. "When it comes to Amy Cooper the current DA waited six weeks to charge something we all saw within moments of it being posted on Twitter, so what we need to be doing is proactively making sure that if there is hate crimes that are committed that we do them quickly. We also need to be looking at the groups like the Proud Boys who have committed crimes ehre in Manhattan and not only going after the cases reactively after they've happened but looking at their underlying funding."

The forum also covered gender-based violence. The moderator said sexual assault crimes are among the easiest to get away with because victims are often afraid of reliving their trauma or not being believed, which results in underreporting. These crimes additionally are under-prosecuted, meaning low conviction rates, the moderator said, also pointing to high-profile cases in cluding Harvey Weinstein andn Jeffrey Epstein.

"Those cases are an example of how the current district attorney's office defers to power and created a concierge system of justice where certain people get a pass and others are over-criminalized. That's never been the way I have conducted myself," Florence said. "I am the only person in the race who has decades of experience prosecuting crimes of power and I have the most experience of doing the actual gender-based cases. I spent five years prosecuting domestic violence."

Aboushi was the only candidate to mention sex work in her answer to the question.

"I would stand with advocates to disband the NYPD vice unit that has used the guise of prosecuting and arresting sex work to meet quotas, to get overtime and to abuse their power and require secxal favors," Aboushi said. "Sex work is work and I will work to decriminalize sex work."

by Emily Mason for Gotham Gazette

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Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Debate Resumes and Reform Credentials Sun, 24 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
The Money Race in the Democratic Primary for Manhattan District Attorney: January Filing 4x4 2

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

It seems more and more likely that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance will not run for reelection as he has not fundraised for his campaign even as a crowded field of Democrats is seeking the party’s nomination in the June primary. The eight candidates running active campaigns and Vance all just filed their latest mandatory campaign finance disclosures, showing their fundraising and spending for the last six months and setting the stage for the final five months before the all-important primary vote.

The winner of the primary in heavily-Democratic Manhattan is all but certain to become the next New York County District Attorney.

Vance, a third-term Democrat, has just $4,193 in his campaign account, according to his latest filing – he raised $2,022 in the last six months and spent only $3,247. Though he has been a progressive in some ways, he has faced criticism for declining to prosecute wealthy defendants and mishandling other high-profile cases, and has also been entangled in campaign finance scandals that seemed to deter him from running again.

The eight Democrats attempting to replace him are civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Liz Crotty; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang; public defender Eliza Orlins; Assemblymember Dan Quart; and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. 

Weinstein, also a former state and federal prosecutor, has far surpassed the rest of the field, raising $2.26 million and spending about $628,000, leaving her with $1.6 million in cash on hand as of the filing. She has received significant funding from wealthy donors. For instance, 11 donors each gave her $35,400 and another four donors gave $35,000. Of the more than 2,000 contributions that she received, her campaign said that more than 1,700 were of $200 or less.

The Manhattan District Attorney race operates under state election and campaign finance laws, not those of New York City, given it is technically a state position.

Bragg is in second place in fundraising, having raised $1.33 million overall since he launched his campaign in 2019 and having spent about $249,000. He has about $1.07 million in cash on hand as of the filing. In just the last six months, he raised about $578,000 and spent only about $97,000. His campaign said he received 3,889 donations, and claimed that he is the only candidate that hasn’t received contributions from corporations.

Assemblymember Quart, who was one of the earliest candidates to jump into the race, has raised about $488,000 and spent about $272,000. But he’s also transferred about $765,000 from previous state and city campaign accounts, which means he had about $940,000 in cash on hand at the filing, putting him almost on par with Bragg.  

Lang has raised $716,000, spent about $134,000, and had about $533,000 on hand as of the filing. Her campaign said she had about 900 donors, 80% of whom gave less than $250.

Orlins, a criminal defense attorney with the The Legal Aid Society, has overall raised just under $600,000 and spent about $163,000. She had about $407,000 left as of the filing. Her campaign boasted of broad grassroots support, claiming to have received more than 7,300 individual contributions, with roughly 3,770 contributions in the last six months alone. Her campaign estimated that more than 95% of contributions were of $100 or less. 

Aboushi has raised a total of about $771,000, of which $346,000 came in the latest filing period when spent about $153,000. She transferred a balance of about $367,000 from a previous campaign account which was transitioned to a narrower committee account for public reporting purposes, her campaign said. She had about $561,000 on hand as of the filing. Her campaign noted that she received 2,377 contributions, 87% of which are under $200.

Florence has raised $355,000 overall and spent about $132,000. She had about $238,000 in cash on hand as of the filing. She has also refused donations from corporations and real estate developers. Crotty has raised just under $280,000, spent $108,000 and had about $166,000 on hand at the filing.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to provide clarity about Aboushi's campaign transfer from a previous account. 

Note - this article has been updated to note that Diana Florence is also not taking corporate donations or those from real estate developers. 

The Money Race in the Democratic Primary for Manhattan District Attorney: January Filing Wed, 20 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Pitch Plans and Pasts to West Side Democratic Clubs Gotham Gazette:

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Janos Marton, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

Tuesday night, the Chelsea Reform Democrats and Hell’s Kitchen Democrats co-hosted a candidate forum for the nine candidates running in the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney. Incumbent Cy Vance has not declared whether or not he plans to run for reelection, but he has not been actively fundraising for another run and has not appeared at any of the early forums, where candidates have at times criticized his record harshly as too punitive on some, particularly low-income people of color, and too lenient on others, particularly wealthy white people, including some men accused or convicted of sexual assault.

Much of the early discussion in the race has been about the many candidates trying to present their resumes and lay out their credentials to become the borough’s top prosecutor, with many of the candidates taking progressive stances and promising efforts to decarcerate. A number of differences among the candidates have emerged, and others are still becoming apparent as they appear at more events together, release policy plans, and further explain how they would run the office that has domain including much of the city’s sprawling subway system, Wall Street, major tourist destinations, some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, many public housing developments, and other facets of Manhattan.

The moderator Tuesday was Sylvia Di Pietro, a district leader in the 75th Assembly District. The candidates were asked mostly different questions throughout the forum.

The nine participants included civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; former Principal Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Liz Crotty; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Lucy Lang; decarceration activist and civil rights attorney Janos Marton; public defender Eliza Orlins; Assemblymember Dan Quart; and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

Dan Quart
Assemblymember Dan Quart, the only current elected official in the race and a criminal defense attorney, promised “a complete break from the last 11 years” of Vance’s tenure and sought to emphasize his anti-establishment bona fides from the beginning of the forum, highlighting his unsuccessful 2005 run for City Council against a party-backed candidate, along with his legislative accomplishments and pro bono work. He said “we can have public safety but also policies of decarceration that don’t punish poor people.”

He listed decarceration as his top priority if elected, saying it “requires deconstructing this office and rebuilding it.” As part of his “reimagining a new vision for public safety,” Quart promised a “complete revamp” of the sex crimes unit, scaling back the use of surveilance in prosecutions, and ending the “criminalization of poverty.”

Quart said he was a supporter of ending cash bail and sentencing reform “before it was easy or a talking point,” citing his legislative work on those issues. When asked how he would reduce jail overcrowding, Quart said as DA he would institute a “rebuttable presumption that no one will be offered a sentence of greater than 20 years.”

Later in the forum, he sought to make a distinction between himself and several of those in the race with prosecutorial backgrounds, saying he would decline to prosecute more cases, rather than mandate diversion programs, as advocated by some other candidates, “who believe they can use the tools of the office in a kinder, gentler way.”

As has been the case in prior forums, there was limited discussion by Quart or others about prosecuting crime, with some exceptions.

One being a major issue brought up at the forum of how each candidate would deal with vehicular violence as DA. Quart called the issue a “serious problem” and said he would be aggressive in prosecuting such cases, like reckless driving and when drivers hit pedestrians, but “not for purposes of incarceration.”

Diana Florence
Diana Florence, who formerly ran the Manhattan DA’s construction fraud task force, said she was running “for people who never thought they’d win” and repeatedly mentioned her intention to focus on “crimes of power not crimes of poverty” if elected. She cited her own work taking on real estate developers and landlords as an example of this. Florence has been endorsed by more than a dozen labor unions, she said, most of which are associated with the construction industry.

“We can’t be operating in the 20th century,” said Florence, who claimed “the district attorney’s office hasn’t changed in 45 years.” She promised to “reallocate resources” from targeting crimes of poverty to crimes of power.

Florence also criticized Vance, whom she worked for until earlier this year, saying, “I was very much an outsider in that office,” and criticizing what she described as a toxic work environment. She also criticized the current handling of gun violence more broadly, telling attendees that “we’re not attacking the problem at its source. She advocated an “interstate approach” to stop gun trafficking before it reaches the city and said “we have great laws but if we’re not enforcing them and stopping the source, we’re not doing anything.”

When asked about vehicular violence, Florence said she would “proactively investigate every single traffic injury or fatality,” comparable to how she investigated any construction fatalities while at the DA’s office.

Lucy Lang
Lucy Lang pitched herself by saying “I know how to reform the system because I’ve worked from the inside and outside.” Lang served for over a decade as an Assistant DA under Vance and has been the director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College since 2017.

Lang said the most significant change she would make to the office would be “building an inclusive workforce,” prioritizing diversity. When asked about the incumbent’s handling of the Harvey Weinstein case, Lang decried a “sense of backdoor dealing” and said she would institute “a policy of equal access,” preventing “backdoor meetings for well-heeled defense attorneys.”

When asked if she thought traffic violence should be treated similarly to drunk driving, Lang said she could not commit without seeing the legislation, but that she “aspires to ensure” that offenders are held “appropriately responsible.”

Tahanie Aboushi
Tahanie Aboushi offered a much more aggressive pitch, saying she was “running to transform this office.” She said ending discriminatory practices is “not just doing damage control but making sure they won’t happen again.”

“This problem is not with Vance,” Aboushi said. “He’s just another cut-and-paste prosecutor.” She said she would refocus the office away from “crime and punishment” and towards public health. When asked how she would address the school-to-prison pipeline, Aboushi said, “we rely on police instead of using our social service programs” and that we need to “stop criminalizing children for being children.”

She criticized the office’s conviction integrity unit as “a lame duck” and committed if elected to “making sure this office is represented by impacted people.” When challenged over whether 20 years would be too lenient of a sentence for murder, Aboushi said that being against the death penalty means “being against death by incarceration.”

Liz Crotty
“I’ve represented everyone,” said Liz Crotty, noting her work as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, which she says gives her “an informed perspective to lead this office.” She said she would bring “realistic, common-sense reforms” to the office, while also declaring “the job of the District Attorney is to enforce the laws of the State of New York and that’s what I’m planning to do.” She cited the use of “certificates of readiness” to prolong cases as a “practice the DA’s office has gotten entirely wrong.”

Crotty often eschewed the more sweeping and systematic promises of her opponents, saying she would look at cases on an individual basis. Asked about how she would handle immigration concerns as DA, Crotty said she would “look at the collateral consequences in nonviolent cases,” but “when it comes to violent crime, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

She had been the only candidate in the race not to sign a letter calling for Governor Cuomo to institute elder parole. “[W]hile I agreed with the spirit and tenor of that letter,” she said, she did not sign it because “each case has to be held on an individual, case-by-case basis.” She specifically said, “I don’t think Harvey Weinstein should get compassionate release.” She took that instance as an example of her “courage to stand out and above,” saying “that’s leadership.”

While generally supportive of restorative justice, she noted that the decision should be left up to the victims, saying, “I have enough experience with defendants to know that not everyone wants that opportunity.”

When asked about her criteria for prosecuting hit-and-runs, Crotty said she would “have to look at the surrounding circumstances.”

Eliza Orlins
Eliza Orlins emphasized that she’s the “only public defender running.” She said that she “absolutely” believes there is systemic racism in the New York criminal justice system, adding that it “forms the basis of our penal system.”

When asked about bail reform, Orlins said right now the presumption of innocence “only applies when you’re rich enough to buy your freedom,” recalling her experiences representing low-income defendants. She said “money bail does not keep us safe” and instead “is used to detain people who are poor.” She decried the “false choice” between ending cash bail and public safety.

Again citing her own work as a public defender, Orlins said, “I’ve seen rampant misconduct” from prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. She said there is a “need to restore trust in the office.”

When asked if she would use vehicular data recorders in vehicular violence prosecutions, she said, “I don’t think that makes our city safer in any way” because in her experience those devices have been used to “up the charges” on defendants.

Alvin Bragg
Alvin Bragg, the lone Black candidate in the race, told the attendees that “all of this work is personal for me,” recounting his personal history witnessing and experiencing police misconduct and violence in his community in Harlem. According to Bragg, his lived experiences led him to make criminal justice his “life’s work” and he said he’s “ready to fundamentally reform the Manhattan DA’s office.”

“The way [violent crime] is prosecuted now doesn’t work,” Bragg said, calling current practices “overly punitive” while also saying that it “doesn’t do enough for victims.” He promised that the decisions of his office would be “survivor-focused and trauma-informed,” including an “opportunity for survivors to confront” perpetrators. He said “we have to deal with this as a systemic issue,” because “trauma affects us all.”

Bragg also promised to hire formerly-incarcerated individuals to work in the office to help others with reentry post-incarceration, saying “those closest to these issues know them best.” He also said he was “proud to stand with those calling for a $1 billion reducation” in the NYPD’s budget, saying that the NYPD “dealing with homelessness and mental health does not make us safer.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Tali Farhadian Weinstein recounted her own personal experiences as an immigrant and said “that remains my framework for how I view the work.” She says that experience has led to her “to want to tear down barriers because I know what it’s like to stand on the other side.” She said she would bring the practices of the Brooklyn DA’s office, which she calls a “national model of progressive prosecution” across the East River to Manhattan.

She said “crimes against women and gender-based violence has not gotten the attention it deserves” from the Manhattan DA’s office, and that change would “require extensive retraining” in addition to “moral courage and commitment.”

When asked about alternatives to incarceration, Farhadian Weinstein said she would import practices from the Brooklyn DA’s office, where she worked until recently, such as a diversion program for first-time gun offenses. Under such a program, participating in mental health counseling or job training could result in charges being dismissed.

On gun violence, she said, “we have excellent gun safety laws yet gun violence is still going up.” She would work with state and federal partners to “stem the flow of gun trafficking” into the city, she said, as well as removing guns from domestic abusers and enforcing red flag laws.

When asked about a dangerousness standard being used to determine bail, Farhadian Weinstein said it’s “a system that better achieves public safety” than cash bail, specifically the need to keep domestic abusers away from their victims.

Janos Marton
Janos Marton takes pride in having the most aggressive decarceration policy in the field. He has a campaign pledge to decrease the pretrial incarceration rate by 80%, which he calls a “real commitment.” He said “that’s something that we can be held accountable by the community for” because of his plan’s specificity.

Aside from the decarceration pledge, Marton said his campaign has published more policies “than any other candidate.” He highlighted his latest plan to “use resources from the financial forfeiture fund for community-based mental health-care,” which he described as a “change approach.” He said “We can do much better in this city than letting people struggle in the streets.”

A longtime leader of the push to close the Rikers Island jails as director of policy and campaigns at JustLeadershipUSA, Marton has also spoken out against the new local jails proposal. “No issue is more important to me," he said, adding, “I believe we can close Rikers without building new jails if we’ve implemented the reforms I’ve proposed.”

Marton is also an advocate for defunding the police, saying resources could instead be used to “invest in programs that truly keep people safe.” He highlighted that he organized a letter among candidates earlier this year calling for $1 billion defunding of the NYPD budget.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Pitch Plans and Pasts to West Side Democratic Clubs Thu, 03 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum 5x4

Top (l-r): Tahanie Aboushi, Alvin Bragg, Eliza Orlins, Janos Marton, Tali Farhadian Weinstein
Bottom (l-r): Liz Crotty, Dan Quart, Diana Florence, Lucy Lang

The nine Democratic candidates currently running for Manhattan District Attorney in next year’s June primary shared the Zoom debate stage for the first time Tuesday night at a three-hour forum hosted by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBTQ-focused political organization. Each candidate was asked questions individually on a wide range of issues relating to LGBTQ rights, police accountability, and more, but there were some instances in which candidates challenged each other.

The forum came a month after the NYC Program Council hosted the first five declared candidates for the inaugural forum of the 2021 Manhattan District Attorney race, which is unfolding amid uncertainty about whether incumbent Democratic District Attorney Cy Vance will seek another term.

The nine candidates participating Tuesday night were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy State Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; former Assistant District Attorney and criminal defense lawyer Liz Crotty; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel in Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez’s office; former Assistant District Attorney Diana Florence; public defender Eliza Orlins; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and, Lucy Lang, a former Assistant District Attorney and the director of John Jay College’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution.

Quart has made his name in the Assembly sponsoring criminal justice reform laws like reducing the use of cash bail. Bragg touts his work in the State Attorney General’s office, investigating Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and others. Marton helped lead the Close Rikers campaign and organized decarceral efforts nationally with the ACLU. As an ADA, Crotty prosecuted street crime, among other offenses, and represented families of 9/11 victims in private practice.

In the Brooklyn DA’s office, Weinstein created the Post-Conviction Justice Bureau to review previous convictions for possible exonerations. Florence, who left the Manhattan DA’s office earlier this year over allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, touts her leadership of that office’s Construction Fraud Task Force. Orlins says her decade defending low-income New Yorkers makes her the best candidate to lead the office in a new, more progressive direction. Aboushi has sued the NYPD over misconduct allegations. Lang touts her leadership in developing data-driven criminal justice reform.

District Attorney Vance did not participate in the forum and has not stated whether he will run for reelection. The entry of Lang, a Vance ally, into the race last week and Vance’s paltry fundraising numbers in the first six months of the year are believed to signal that Vance is unlikely to run, especially given the all-important Democratc primary is now less than 10 months away. Lang’s Institute for Innovative Prosecution is funded in part by grants from Vance’s office, which funds many causes, mostly through massive settlements it has reached with financial institutions.

The Jim Owles Club, the forum host, advocates for the decriminalization of sex work and repeal of the “walking while trans” law, among other criminal justice reforms, as well as LGBTQ rights, universal healthcare, and reproductive rights, among other progressive causes. The club is one of New York’s two major citywide progressive LGBTQ political clubs affiliated with the Democratic Party, along with the Stonewall Democrats.

The club’s president, Allen Roskoff, said in a statement that the forum was “a historic opportunity to get an early look at the candidates for one of the most important offices in the country.” The forum had about 100 digital attendees throughout the three-hour event.

“We consider this one of the most important races of 2021,” Roskoff told attendees at the start of the forum. He noted that the club distributed over 50,000 pieces of literature in support of candidates during the 2020 state primaries and would be making its endorsement in the Manhattan District Attorney primary coming months.

“We don’t want a district attorney who is just qualified…and continues to do the status quo. We want a district attorney that people across the country will take note of,” Roskoff said, pointing to San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as models. “We want a district attorney who’s going to get people out of prison and not spend all their time locking people up.”

There was widespread agreement on many of the issues brought up during the forum. All nine candidates voiced support for Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman’s elder parole bill and for repeal of the “walking while trans” law, and promised to visit constituents serving prison terms and to at minimum continue the current sanctuary city policies in the borough.

All but one candidate, Weinstein, expressed support for sex work decriminalization and were against the Nordic model. Florence said that the state “needs to be mindful of the way we draft the bill,” voicing concerns about human trafficking, and said she would “tread lightly” on the issue. Weinstein said she “was not there yet” on sex work decriminalization but that she was “open to revisiting her position” and supports the Nordic model, which maintains the criminalization of buyers of sex while decriminilizing sex workers themselves.

On police funding, several candidates called for the city to reduce the NYPD budget. Florence said that the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget “makes no sense” when other agencies are underfunded. Aboushi said that “the city has come to rely on the NYPD to enforce social inequities and make them crimes.” Lang called for “community-coordinated responses to conduct that doesn’t need police involvement.” Bragg said he’d advocate to “undo Bill de Blasio’s bloating of the NYPD budget” and denounced the “funny budget math” on moving school safety officers to the Department of Education.

The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) was a contentious issue at the forum, with several candidates promising not to join the organization, which has come under scrutiny by criminal justice reformers. Orlins, Aboushi, and Quart said they would not join the association. Quart said “it’s a fallacy to believe anyone can join that organization and reform it.” Aboushi called it “the antithesis of what I stand for.”

Lang said she would join the DAASNY because a “diversity of voices makes a difference” and she would try to change others’ minds. Bragg said that he would have an “adversarial relationship” with the group while joining it. Florence said she would join, but said she had “brought other DAs to more progressive stances” and would do the same at the DAASNY.

When asked whether they would support the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, all the candidates in attendance at the time (Weinstein was not yet present) said they would, except Crotty, who said “jails exist for a reason” and that mandatory minimums “only exist for violent crimes.”

Lang called for more “judicial discretion” in the sentencing process, to which Aboushi pushed back, saying that “guardrails” were necessary to ensure that judges did not impose overly punitive sentences. Marton promised not to seek sentences longer than 20 years, except under extraordinary circumstances. Marton has also pledged to reduce Manhattan’s prison population by 80% during his tenure.

“I’m running for district attorney against some very good lawyers who would all make a better district attorney than Cy Vance,” Quart said at one point during the forum, an acknowledgement that many of the candidates running had similarly-progressive answers to most questions asked Tuesday night.

With his 80% decarceration goal and other proposals, Marton has tried to establish himself as the furthest left, most radical candidate in the race, while Quart repeatedly pointed to his legislative record as evidence of his own progressive bona fides, as well as his calls for Vance and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea to resign. Bragg, the lone Black candidate in the race, often cites his lived and prosecutorial experiences as reasons that he would make an effective DA. Similarly, Aboushi noted that she would be the first woman and person of color to hold the position. Other candidates, notably Crotty, dissented from the consensus progressive stances on issues like mandatory minimums and cautioned against defunding the NYPD budget.

Each candidate was asked to fill out a lengthier questionnaire and return it to the club before they make their endorsement in the race before petitioning starts for the primary.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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All 9 Democratic Candidates for Manhattan District Attorney Appear at LGBTQ-Focused Forum Wed, 19 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate 5 candidates

(l-r) Dan Quart, Alvin Bragg, Tahanie Aboushi, Janos Marton, Eliza Orlins

With the 2021 Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney now under a year away, five candidates for the office participated in a forum hosted by the New York City Program Council and Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association. Manhattan’s current District Attorney, Cy Vance, has not yet said if he will seek reelection next year as the borough’s top prosecutor and law enforcement officer, but he was a frequent target of his potential opponents during the event.

The kickoff of the primary comes amid the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and national reckoning around racism in policing and criminal justice, as well as several successful elections of progressive district attorney candidates across the country, plus public defender Tiffany Cabán’s near-win in the Queens District Attorney primary last year.

Vance has faced heavy criticism in recent years over his handling of sex crime cases, including Harvey Weinstein’s, and his decision not to prosecute members of the Turmp family over potentially fraudulent real estate deals, among other controversies. There are currently six Democrats who have declared campaigns, with five of them participating in Tuesday’s virtual forum.

The five participating candidates were Assemblymember Dan Quart; former Chief Deputy New York Attorney General Alvin Bragg; former ACLU attorney Janos Marton; civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi; and public defender Eliza Orlins. (Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, announced her candidacy this week and did not participate in the forum.)

As many as 400 people watched as the five candidates discussed their backgrounds and stances on issues ranging from cash bail to police brutality to alternatives to incarceration. The candidates often agreed on the issues, but tried to cast themselves as the person best-positioned to actually deliver change.

The question of how to hold police accountable for potential misconduct was the top issue of the forum. Each candidate proposed how they would ensure independence, an important theme given that police and prosecutors largely work on the same team. Bragg called it “the essential issue” and that it’s been his “life’s work,” noting that he has previously prosecuted police for misconduct. He would have prosecutors in his office who specialize in police misconduct and would not be beholden to police for other cases.

Marton said he was “the only candidate to hold Andrew Cuomo accountable” through his work for Cuomo’s prematurely shuttered Moreland Commission to address public corruption, though he didn’t go into specifics, and he would take the same independence to handle cases of police misconduct. He said he would use a “full court press” that would hold as many officers accountable for breaking the law as possible.

Orlins called for independent investigators with civilian oversight to handle allegations of police misconduct. “These prosecutions must be done by someone with no connection to law enforcement,” she said. She also said untrustworthy police officers should not be allowed to testify in court.

Aboushi said that the district attorney’s office is currently the “personal law firm for those with a badge” and said she would “listen to victims of police violence,” promising transparency and accountability in prosecutions of police officers.

Quart pledged to reform the early case assessment bureau and to publicly disclose untruthful police officers.

The candidates rarely took shots at each other and instead directed much of their ire at Vance, bringing up several scandals that have dogged the incumbent in recent years.

Quart said that Vance had “failed to use the incredible powers of the district attorney’s office to reform the system” during his tenure.

“I wish [Vance] could get his 30 seconds, but I know he’s not here tonight,” Orlins said at one point, referring to the rebuttal time candidates were allowed if another candidate mentioned their name during the debate.

“We need fundamental change in Manhattan and I’m the one to bring it,” said Bragg, who said he believes that “incarceration should be a matter of last resort.” He would make pretrial alternatives for mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment more widely available, especially to communities of color, he said.

The candidates agreed on much, such as all five supporting an end to cash bail and more aggressively prosecuting the financial services industry, and arguing that DA Vance should be doing more to reduce the jail population during the coronavirus pandemic. All five candidates also expressed support for ending the so-called trial penalty, whereby defendants know that they will face tougher potential sentencing if they take a case to trial over accepting a plea bargain. Quart and Marton committed to rarely seek sentences of longer than 20 years.

Throughout the forum, Quart pointed to his “actual history of achieving results” as a legislator implementing changes to the criminal justice system, including cosponsoring cash bail reform and voting against recent rollbacks of the bail changes passed by the Legislature last year.

Marton, a decarceration activist who helped lead the campaign to closer the Rikers Island jails, argued that he has “the boldest positions in this race,” including a plan to reduce the number of people in jail from Manhattan by 80%. He also opposes the city’s plan to build new community jails to replace Rikers Island, saying, “I believe in a world without prisons.”

Bragg frequently pointed to his experience as a prosecutor in both the State Attorney General’s office and at the Southern District of New York as a federal prosecutor. He boasted about successful investigations of President Donald Trump for Trump University and major corporations like UPS for shipping untaxed cigarettes. He pitched himself as an “experienced manager” who oversaw an office of 1,200 while Chief Deputy Attorney General for New York State.

Orlins argued she is unique among candidates, saying, “I’m the only candidate here who has been on the frontlines as a public defender for over a decade.” As proof of her managerial expertise, she said she has managed up to 200 cases at a time.

Aboushi cited her experience working directly in communities as a civil rights attorney who “has spent the last ten years in people’s living rooms protecting their rights.” She said she is “the only candidate who has forced the NYPD to change discriminatory practices,” likely referring to a lawsuit she led against the NYPD’s policy regarding religious head coverings during arrests.

All five candidates said they would not take campaign donations from law enforcement unions. Quart, Bragg, and Marton each said that they would not take campaign donations from defense attorneys. Marton said he also would not take funds from the real estate industry and Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists.

The Democratic primary for Manhattan District Attorney will be held in June of 2021.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been corrected to reflect Bragg said he would not accept donations from corporations or lobbyists -- the word "not" had been previously left out accidentally.

Without Vance, 5 Democratic Manhattan District Attorney Candidates Participate in First Debate Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000