eliza orlins

Eliza Orlins, a native Manhattanite, has been a public defender at The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan for 10 years, where she had a reputation for being a zealous advocate for her clients and a skilled trial lawyer who was unwilling to back down from a fight. As the only public defender in the race, this perspective gives her a clear understanding of the harmful policies and practices that she now seeks to undo as the next Manhattan DA. Orlins hopes to break the inevitable relationship between prosecution and incarceration, ending incarceration as the default response and instead using the power of the prosecutor to offer people the help and services they need in a non-coercive way, without the looming threat of incarceration. At the same time, she advocates for a smaller DA’s office and is one of the only candidates calling for a 50% reduction to the NYPD budget. She believes that the DA’s office should not be “overly involved in the supervision of human beings,” such as through intervention courts or mandating unnecessary services, or be in control of the disbursement of forfeiture funds. While it is clear her goals are decarceral, as her campaign unfolds we hope to see more concrete plans as to how she would shrink the size of the DA’s office while still allowing it to be a conduit for social services. 

Orlins has a deep understanding of the damage mass incarceration has caused to Black and brown communities from her years as a public defender, stating, for example, that “today’s client is tomorrow’s victim.” Throughout our interview she not only highlighted racism within the criminal punishment system, but also how the system should not be used to solve major social and community problems. She does not seem to draw on strong relationships with community organizers or organizations but she recently announced that she has raised more than 95% of campaign funds from individuals who donated $100 or less, suggesting that her campaign is resonating with everyday New Yorkers and proving that hers is a grassroots funded campaign. 

If elected, she plans to almost completely revamp the current staffing of the office. She is unafraid to fire people who don’t share her vision, and from her years of work, she already knows who they are. She is also thoughtful about how to get “buy-in” from staff who may stay on and will prioritize hiring formerly incarcerated people, people committed to decarceration and restorative justice, and former public defenders to bring her vision for the office to fruition. 

Orlins has a vision for the DA’s office that is centered in decarceration. She would end cash bail on day one and require assistant DAs to bring a request to office leadership anytime they seek pre-trial detention such as remand. She would not rely on risk assessment instruments, which she understands are built on racist assumptions. She would end the insidious practice of the “trial tax,” the waiver of the right to appeal in order to accept a felony plea, and pledged to never use peremptory strikes which tend to racially discriminate against potential jurors. She would use the bully pulpit of her office to advocate for legislative change, including raising the age for criminal prosecutions to 25 years old, in line with neurological development science. Her years as a public defender allowed her to share some of the most concrete approaches for implementing change among the candidates in this race, such as how to protect immigrants accused of crimes and to protect people who suffer from the trauma of abuse from being unfairly punished. Orlins would be a DA who supports legalization of all drugs and the immediate closure of Rikers Island. 

Throughout her nearly two hour interview, Orlins was fiercely passionate about the injustices in the criminal punishment system, detailed and thorough in her plan to create real structural change, and never without an anecdote from a real case to explain the problem with the status quo. Orlins acknowledged that she would face resistance as she seeks to fundamentally change the DA’s office, but she appears confident and unwavering in her vision. She has never backed away from these decarceral positions in public comments or debates and has in fact continued to develop her platform to include more plans to dismantle a system designed to create harm. 

We believe that, among the candidates, her vision to dismantle the machinery of the DA’s office, coupled with her deep understanding of the courts and prosecutors in Manhattan, would do the least amount of harm to Black and brown low-income communities. 

**Orlins is a former member of 5 Boro Defenders, but she voluntarily left the group when she announced her candidacy for DA. Additionally many members of this working group worked with her at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. In an effort to remove possible bias, the group that interviewed her were not former LAS colleagues, with the exception of one person who had recently transferred to the office and worked on a different floor. There were no LAS colleagues among the small group assigned to present an initial analysis to the working group.**

Defunding the DA and Prosecutorial Accountability

 

 

 

 

Orlins committed to reinterviewing every bureau chief to ensure that they are aligned with her vision and policies. She will also take advantage of knowing “what they’ve done” over the years. She is not afraid to “clean house” and fire higher-ups who engage in misconduct or refuse to comply with her new policies. 

The central tenet of Orlins’s candidacy is reducing the scope and budget of the office, decreasing staff and “handing over money” to community groups to use for restorative justice practices, drug treatment, and mental health services. She is committed to reducing and ultimately ending the role of the DA’s office in directing treatment courts, diversion programs, or other mandates that are ultimately carceral in nature. This separates her from many other candidates who identify as progressive but whose plans rely on an expansion of court-mandated treatment and services. She will use an independent body to determine disbursements from the forfeiture fund. She believes that reparations should be made to Black and brown New Yorkers, especially with regard to marijuana prosecutions.

Orlins believes the criminal punishment system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful. She stated in her interview that she does not believe the solution is to punish the wealthy more severely. Rather, her solution to this inequity is to decarcerate Black and brown communities and give low-income people the same benefit of the doubt and presumption of innocence that the wealthy enjoy–in other words, leveling up versus leveling down. However, Orlins’s rhetoric in the media has at times differed from her stance in the interview–she has frequently criticized Vance for his perceived leniency toward the Trump family, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and other prominent figures. When asked about this seeming contradiction directly, Orlins responded with thoughtful reflection. She discussed her view that social media conversations did not capture the complexity of her sentiments. She has been vocal in her criticism of high profile individuals because she knows from experience that the rights of low-income, BlPOC individuals are never shown such deference. She is running for DA to bring this level of respect and understanding to all involved in the criminal punishment system.  

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

Defunding the DA candidate positions

Combating Systemic Racism

 

 

 

 

Throughout her interview, Orlins repeatedly emphasized that the criminal punishment system disproportionately and intentionally punishes and marginalizes Black, brown, and low-income New Yorkers, and her policies would seek to diminish this.

When asked whether she would agree to a policy of never using a peremptory strike during jury selection, she reflected on the idea, agreed to it, and later tweeted out her commitment. She plans to collect and release data on prosecutorial outcomes by race, including cases where the office declined to prosecute, and break this information down by race and precinct. She would never request a no-knock warrant, noting that judges are “complicit” and simply “rubber-stamp” warrants rather than demand an evidentiary basis for the requested search or seizure.

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

 

 

combating racism candidate positions

Policing the Police

policing the police logo

Orlins believes that police officers must be held accountable for “not only physical violence in the streets, but perjury in the courthouse.” She knows from experience that police officers frequently lie on the stand, rarely face accountability, and in many instances continue to be called as the only witness in criminal cases. She is supportive of publicizing police misconduct and refusing to allow them to testify when they have lied or otherwise demonstrated misconduct. Her criticism of the NYPD was broad and unequivocal. Based on her career as a public defender and already high media profile, she seems particularly well-situated to withstand criticism from the NYPD, police unions, and police-friendly media such as the NY Post. She was the only candidate to criticize NYPD’s practice of using unlawful arrests to justify hours of overtime charged to the taxpayer. She plans to call this behavior out publicly and not stand for it. 

Orlins is extremely critical of gang conspiracy cases and believes that they allow people to be “prosecuted for conduct that they themselves have not committed.” Orlins also pointed out that the database fails to actually help those at risk of violent crime. Instead, she would invest in resources that are proven to work, including community-based resources such as credible messengers, conflict transformation, public health programs, and restorative justice. She would immediately stop the use of the controversial data mining company, Palantir. 

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

policing the police candidate positions

Abolishing Cash Bail and Pretrial Detention

Orlins wants to end cash bail within her first hundred days as DA. She is cognizant of the overuse of remand by progressive prosecutors and jurisdictions, and will require any ADA seeking pretrial detention to get approval from Orlins herself or a high-level supervisor.  No other candidate made such a proposal. She is clear that release will be the default, but recognizes that pretrial detention may be necessary in very limited circumstances such as for the wealthy and well-connected who may be a flight risk. Her focus is centered on ending pretrial detention, not simply replacing cash bail with remand or extensive pre-trial supervision. Orlins recognizes that risk assessments are racist and will not use them.

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

abolishing cash bail candidate positions

Ending the Criminalization of Poverty, Mental, Illness, and Substance Use

Orlins supports the legalization of all drugs, not only marijuana. She also supports safe injection sites. Additionally, Orlins expressed that “our neighbors who are suffering from mental health issues should not have to be locked up in order to receive the treatment they need.”

She would continue to prosecute some drug offenses such as selling prescriptions and trafficking large amounts of fentanyl or heroin. 

Orlins’s platform calls for moving treatment services out of the criminal punishment system and into the community, echoing the calls to divest from policing and prosecution and invest in community services. As a result, she has less specific plans for treatment through the District Attorney’s office than some other candidates. While we support the goal of shrinking the criminal punishment system completely, we would want additional information as to how Orlins would use diversion and treatment as she shrinks the system. 

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

ending the criminalization of poverty candidate positions

Support for Decarceral Outcomes and Sentencing

Orlins doesn’t believe in “death by incarceration under any circumstances.” She believes that, in an ideal world, prisons and jails would not exist, and intends to use incarceration as an absolute last resort. ADAs seeking more than the minimum incarceratory sentence must receive special permission. She supports dismantling mandatory minimums and predicate sentencing enhancements. She believes in a sentencing cap of 20 years for crimes such as homicide, and a lower cap for other crimes.

As a longtime public defender, Orlins understands the tools she can implement to protect immigrants from suffering disproportionately from criminal justice contact. She is supportive of raising the age for adult prosecutions from 18 to 25 and will not oppose parole requests.

Orlins would not commit to never asking for jail on a case that originated as a misdemeanor, citing “extreme” cases. Orlins stated that she will follow complainants’ wishes if they do not want to pursue prosecution or orders of protection, and will work with them to pursue alternatives if they want incarceration. 

She plans to focus prosecutions on people or entities that perpetuate “real harms,” including stealing from workers, exploiting immigrants, or preying on the powerless; this would include  landlords or companies that send workers into dangerous sites.

We would have liked to see more of Orlins’s plan for how she’d handle offenses that the average Manhattanite considers serious, such as homicides. Since she has never held public office, we can’t rely on an existing track record of sticking to her vision despite public criticisms, but we do know that she has not wavered from her decarceral pledges in any of the candidate debates or candidate interviews published by local news outlets. 

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

support for decarceral outcomes candidate positions

Commitment to the Presumption of Innocence

Orlins committed to never imposing a trial or hearing tax, meaning that she would not recommend a more punitive sentence because an individual accused of a crime exercised their constitutional right to a hearing or trial. She will consent to jury trials for B misdemeanors even though a law allows for bench trials (judges instead of juries as the decision maker) for these cases in NYC. Orlins believes that the DA’s office failed to curb the worst effects of COVID-19 by failing to engage in large-scale decarceration.

Orlins understands that an open criminal case is disruptive to someone accused of a crime and often has the effect of coercing pleas: people are punished merely for exercising their legal rights to fight their case and assert their innocence. She is supportive of trying to allow routine court appearances to be done virtually even after the pandemic subsides. That way, people accused of crimes do not have to miss work, find child care, etc.

Orlins’s experience as the only public defender in the crowded field makes her uniquely positioned to understand how prosecutors and judges dehumanize and devalue people in the system. She emphatically committed to using “person-first” language (e.g., names and proper pronouns rather than “defendants”), never cross-examining defendants on prior crimes if they testify at trial, and ending the office’s practice of indefinitely confiscating property like money and phones from people simply because they have been arrested.

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

presumption of innocence candidate positions

Correcting Past Harms

Orlins committed to direct her prosecutors to allow pleas without waivers of appeals. She plans for her office to consent to appeals where there are major structural errors below. 

Orlins plans to have a conviction integrity unit that would examine convictions after trials or pleas, including for misdemeanors and our clients who do not have a claim of factual innocence. Orlins mentioned that she is already working with a criminologist to develop this unit and plans to include public defenders and DNA experts as well. She presented a more in-depth look at what that unit would entail just before this guide was complete, and it would certainly be the most robust unit from this field of candidates. To ensure the independence of the unit, Orlins would hire outside expert analysts, and, most innovatively, use the unit to not simply review past convictions but also to monitor current cases, policies and practices by tracking them as they unfold, looking for net effect on the community and screening for implicit bias or racially disparate results. 

 

Rubric Category: Least harmful approach: will shrink the power and reach of the office

correcting past harms candidate positions