Liz Crotty (photo: Liz Crotty for DA)
In this race for Manhattan District Attorney, candidates will talk your ear off criticizing the current occupant of the office, and cataloging all the things wrong with prosecutions. While there are a great deal of legitimate criticisms, nevertheless one might be left scratching their head to understand what candidates actually plan to do as DA. That is why candidates must outline not only what the next DA must stop doing, but also what she should do.
So what should the Manhattan District Attorney do? First and foremost, she must seek justice for all and protect and support crime victims and witnesses. The DA’s office should investigate and prosecute criminal activity in Manhattan, both on its own and with the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies, in order to save lives and keep every neighborhood in the borough safe for those who live, work, and visit here.
The DA should use every available legal resource to ensure prosecutions are based on credible, reliable, and admissible evidence, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutions should not be based on the defendant’s celebrity status, the publicity the case would generate, or the prosecutor’s personal empathy with the victim. Besides fairly prosecuting the guilty, the DA should also protect the innocent. The office should look at each case individually when deciding whether to pursue a criminal prosecution, dismiss a case, or divert to drug treatment or another program, using its prosecutorial discretion wisely, thoughtfully, and appropriately.
The District Attorney should continue to use a vertical prosecution system. This means that, with very few exceptions, each felony case is assigned to one Assistant District Attorney, who stays with the case from the time it is first written up until the time the case is resolved. That ensures case continuity for victims and witnesses, which is the best approach for prosecution.
The DA should seek bail selectively, following the factors enumerated in section 510 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law. The DA should protect defendants’ rights to presumption of innocence, a speedy trial, and detention only after due process. Forcing defendants to spend weeks, months, or even years in pretrial detention, or the threat thereof, should not be a tool to coerce people into accepting plea deals.
The DA should examine all the facts and underlying circumstances of a case before deciding whether a plea offer is a fair, just, and appropriate resolution of the case. The offer should not become less favorable the more time passes, as “punishment” for the defendant not accepting a deal earlier. And she should lobby Albany not to enact lengthy mandatory minimum sentences that compel defendants to plead guilty to avoid the prospect of spending decades in prison.
The DA should present cases to a grand jury only after a thorough investigation and a review of all available evidence. She should not manipulate the proceedings to “indict a ham sandwich” or not indict someone as a personal favor. Nor should she present cases only because doing so is popular with the public.
The District Attorney should always protect the right to a fair trial. She should expeditiously provide the defendant with the full body of evidence, including any that may be exonerating. She should ensure that the jury is impartial, and not chosen because they are conducive to finding someone guilty. And she must realize that some law enforcement officers are not credible, and inform the defense of this should any such officer testify.
The DA should make every effort to accommodate the schedules of all witnesses.
The DA should seek fair, just, and appropriate sentences in all cases, including non-jail sentences. And the DA should consider, when fair, just, and appropriate, “re-pleader” offers, wherein a defendant is permitted to plead guilty with specified conditions, such as restorative justice, community service, and/or treatment programs, and if a defendant avoids re-arrest and successfully completes the conditions of the plea, a defendant may then withdraw the plea and earn a conviction to a lesser offense, or even a violation or outright dismissal.
The DA should consider, when fair, just, and appropriate, and after consulting with the victim, offering restorative justice programs to all eligible defendants who demonstrate a willingness to learn from past mistakes.
The District Attorney should always scrupulously avoid activities that pose a conflict of interest. She should not give special treatment to defendants or defense attorneys who have given donations to the DA and other elected officials. The DA also should not accept donations from unions representing law enforcement officers, because she may have to investigate those officers accused of misconduct.
The DA should endeavor to hire attorneys and support staff who are as diverse as the borough of Manhattan, and who are caring, fair, smart, have common sense, and are dedicated to serving the public. They should live in New York. And the DA should require her attorneys to participate in mandatory training programs that teach best practices and ethics.
Finally, the District Attorney should regularly conduct community-based events and presentations in schools. Manhattan’s communities, including those that have received the least fair treatment from the criminal justice system, should have faith in the office, and the DA must do her part to cultivate it.
We cannot fall into the trap of believing there is a choice between safety and civil rights, but we must be honest about our legally feasible paths to achieving both.
The responsibilities of the District Attorney differ from those of the mayor, a legislator, or the police commissioner. When criminal justice reforms are sold to the public by candidates who will never be able to carry them out it equates to campaign smoke and mirrors, which ultimately leaves voters feeling frustrated and disgruntled election cycle after election cycle.
The most important reforms the District Attorney can enact must come from within the confines of her mandated responsibilities and discretionary latitude. To claim that the DA can formulate and institute public policy is fallacious. That is the job of our state and city lawmakers.
The next Manhattan District Attorney, whoever she is, must have a proactive vision for her tenure, and find real, workable solutions within the purview of the job. She cannot merely enumerate grievances with the current office and the criminal justice system. Because the District Attorney is a leader, not a critic.
Liz Crotty is a Democratic candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @LizCrotty2021.