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.**