As adversaries of the District Attorney, Five Boro Defenders‘ (5BD) members have a deep understanding of the unbridled power of the prosecutor and are witnesses to the daily harms it inflicts. With this unique perspective, a working group of 5BD members created our first election guide for the Brooklyn District Attorney primary in 2017. This was followed by a guide for the Queens District Attorney primary in 2019. The current guide is a product of the Manhattan working group and is possible because of the work of our colleagues in Brooklyn and Queens. This guide is not the opinion of 5BD as a whole, but of our working group, largely made up of practitioners in Manhattan criminal courts.
This Guide is Not an Endorsement
As public defenders and students of abolition, we do not embrace any candidate for District Attorney. The role of the prosecutor, no matter how “progressive,” will always be harmful to the communities we represent because of our fundamental belief that prosecutors do not deliver justice. Justice comes from accountability within the community. Prosecutors do not make us safe; safety arises when a community that has its basic health, economic, housing, and educational needs met.
We witness daily the harm created by the racist and dangerously retributive policies of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and his assistants in the name of the “People of New York”–policies which reinforce and contribute to the continuing harm of racist policing and mass incarceration. The role of the prosecutor in our legal system, no matter who they are, is a role that harms individuals and communities. With this in mind, we recognize that some candidates are likely to cause more harm than others. The aim of this guide is to inform voters and would-be endorsers as to where we, as practitioners, believe candidates fall on a harm to community scale as compared to one another and to Vance.
Vance is responsible for caging the most New Yorkers on Rikers Island out of any citywide District Attorney. He pursues low-level offenses and refuses to hold police accountable, and has not addressed deep corruption within his office. He has notoriously served the wealthy and special interests, declining to pursue cases against campaign donors such as Harvey Weinstein and the Trump family until it was politically expedient, all while relentlessly incarcerating and targeting Black and brown New Yorkers for prosecution. True transformative change will require a DA that addresses the devastating legacy Vance will leave behind.
We Want to Shrink the Power of the DA
The DA decides who to charge, what to charge, what kind of alternatives to incarceration to offer, and what length of sentence to seek. A position imbued with this much power and discretion is downright dangerous. While certainly a “progressive prosecutor” is a better alternative to a traditional law-and-order prosecutor, too often these self-styled “progressive” candidates want to maintain their discretion and power while simply reorganizing and redirecting it. We want to end it. No one politician should wield such extraordinary power. No one politician should control such a massive budget. Vance’s 2019 budget was the largest of all six city-wide offices, including the special narcotics prosecutor. Despite a decrease in crime, Vance has consistently increased the size of his largest-in-NYC staff, all while prosecuting the people of the third most populous borough.
We want to defund and shrink the power of the DA in service of our mission to abolish the DA, just as we fight to defund and abolish the police. We want to divest from the prison industrial complex and ensure that funding goes directly to support communities through community led initiatives like violence interrupters, safe injection sites, community and youth centers, public health sites, mental health resources, child care, public schools, and after-school programs–in short, resources that will make communities safer and ensure that communities thrive, free of jail and prison walls.
Our findings: Dan Quart and Eliza Orlins are the candidates that would do the least amount of harm in the race of eight seeking the office of the Manhattan DA.
As the snapshot analysis shows (above), 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.
A similar distinction occurs with the next grouping of candidates, Tahanie Aboushi and Alvin Bragg. We found that Aboushi had a more profound commitment to decarceration and would center reducing harm to communities and shrinking the power of the office, however she frequently lacked a clear understanding of the mechanics of the criminal courts and a plan for accomplishing these objectives. Alvin Bragg, on the other hand, embraces the ideology of the “progressive prosecutor” and would not commit to shrinking the power of the office he seeks, opting instead to redirect that power. However, his understanding of the system, plans for change, and managerial experience suggest he would successfully implement his detailed policies which, compared to Cy Vance, would dramatically reduce the harm to Black and brown communities.
Lucy Lang, Diana Florence, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, are all career prosecutors who fail to understand the harm of prosecution, fail to understand the systemic racism, and fail to put forth comprehensive plans to combat that racism and harm. All hold themselves out to be “progressive prosecutors.” However, their brand of progressive prosecution would not only fail to shrink the scope of the office but also fail to create meaningful systemic changes to root out bias and reduce harm upon Black and brown communities.
Of these three, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who has raised the most money in the crowded field, is especially dangerous and shares the lowest ranking with Liz Crotty. In our interview, Farhadian Weinstein espoused an ardent belief in traditional prosecution and was the most unreceptive to exploring or understanding the very real harm done to communities by these practices; we find it hard to accept her labeling as a “progressive prosecutor” and believe her election would be more of the same carceral rigidity and cronyism that has been the hallmark of Cy Vance.
Rounding out the bottom is Liz Crotty, who scored similarly to Tali Farhadian Weinstein at times. Crotty does not even pretend to be a “progressive prosecutor.” Crotty believes in the power and reach of the office as well as the integrity of the NYPD and its close relationship to the Manhattan DA office. Crotty would likely perpetuate the same harms as Vance with little reorganization or reflection on the many critiques of the harm done during his term in office.
The 5BD Manhattan working group will continue to monitor candidate positions as the race continues as well as hold them accountable to positions they committed to in our interview. When a new DA is elected we will engage in accountability with the coalition of community groups organizing under the umbrella group “The People’s Coalition for Manhattan DA Accountability” as well as continue to stand up, every day in the criminal courts, on the side of the people of Manhattan, zealously defending their rights.
You can also download a pdf version of this guide. Primary elections will be held in June, with a nine-day early voting period June 13-20 and election day June 22. Follow us on Twitter for further updates.
Graphics by Elydah Joyce