By David Greenwald and Alexander Ramirez
MANHATTAN, NY – There have been just four prosecutors to head the Manhattan DA’s Office over the last 80 years. Soon that will be five, as three-term incumbent Cyrus Vance, Jr., has announced he will not be running for a fourth term for the position of Manhattan District Attorney.
In a memo to his office, Cy Vance touted his record in his three terms as DA.
Perhaps best known for his prosecution in the Trump v. Vance and People v. Weinstein, Vance claims a record of reform that many of his critics and reformers do not agree is warranted. Instead they see his retirement as a door to true transformational reform of the Manhattan criminal legal system.
“Having secured these lasting impacts in our communities, our public policy, and our crime fighting capacity…the time has come to open the pathway for new leadership at the Manhattan D.A.’s Office,” Vance said in his announcement.
Vance also cited his role in reforming the New York prison system, arguing that under his leadership, the caseload of the office went down by 58 percent because of a decision to decrease prosecution of specific crimes like subway fare evasion, peaceful protest, and marijuana smoking and possession, among others.
“We’ve used discretion and diversion to slash our caseload by 58 percent—massively reducing our criminal justice footprint and the inequities that underlie unnecessary prosecutions,” he said.
Alternatives for prosecutions in the form of free service interventions also occurred, as well as a Conviction Integrity Program, supervised release program, college-in-prison program, and heavy contributions toward the reintegration of New Yorkers into their communities after they have been incarcerated.
“We are, every day, moving our justice system and our community forward,” said Vance, who looked to modernize the office he was a part of by creating cybercrime and anti-terrorist operations, as well as focusing on economic crimes like the previously mentioned crackdown of banks Vance had a role in.
This was in the name of “21st century crime fighting in New York,” Vance said in his memo.
With what he claims was an extensive list of accomplishments and previous promise already done for his county, a fourth term wouldn’t have seemed far-fetched. However, he came with a goal and intended to keep it, Vance said.
“Instead, I said I would give it my all for two or three terms, then begin a new chapter in my life and open the pathway for new leadership in the D.A.’s Office. I believed then—and I believe now—that change is a fundamentally good thing for any institution,” Vance said.
A number of candidates have come forward to vie for Cy Vance’s office—even before his official announcement. There are a number of reform-minded candidates as well at least one major status quo candidate, Tali Weinstein Farhadian.
One of the reform candidates is Assemblymember Dan Quart, who has been an advocate for criminal justice reform in the NY Legislature and a critic of Cy Vance.
Quart told the Vanguard that he wishes Vance and his family well in their next stage of their lives, but he looks forward to the opportunity this presents to working for “systemic and deep reform of this office which allow us to achieve public safety without punishing poor people, people with mental illness and so many societal problems that for all sorts of reasons have ended up in the Manhattan criminal courtroom over the last decade or so.”
Dan Quart praised Vance’s recent efforts to use forfeiture money on programs like the West Harlem Initiative.
“They’ve only been implemented in a short sample size, but I think that’s the right approach,” he said. He said that he would look to replicate restorative justice programs and wrap around services on a larger scale. “The origins of these programs unfortunately were the result of large-scale sweeps that he and the NYPD performed in Central Harlem, but I will give the office credit for recently an appropriate approach to providing services in neighborhoods where there has been a demonstrated higher increase in crime.”
Quart said there has been no shortage of his criticism of Cy Vance and cited ten years of experience he has doing just that.
It was Dan Quart who sought to legalize the gravity knife. For two consecutive years in 2016 and 2017, the NY Legislature overwhelmingly approved the measure, only to have Governor Cuomo twice veto it.
As Quart points out, the classification of the pocketknife as illegal was used disproportionately against people of color.
“Unfortunately the history of this office—the law was used for punishing poor people and by extension disproportionately people of color,” Quart explained.
He is also a strong critic of the sex crimes unit of the office.
Quart is critical of Vance’s practice of “allowing the NYPD to arrest and prosecute individuals.” He called the practice “terribly wrong,” arguing “for better or worse, Manhattan chose Cy Vance to be their prosecutor in their courtrooms and he outsources this essential function in the NYPD.”
He said that before many others opposed Cy Vance’s policies, before it was easy and popular, “I was against Cy Vance’s policies when I thought they were hurtful to my constituents on the east side.”
Jeffrey Deskovic, an exoneree who is now an attorney and who has formed the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation, was critical of Vance’s efforts on the issue of conviction review and wrongful convictions.
“Cy Vance’s conviction review unit was, from the beginning up until the end of his term, a complete and utter sham,” Deskovic said. “People like the still wrongfully imprisoned Jon Adrian Velazquez and Danny Rincon, and the eventually exonerated Johnny Hincapie are examples of his unit’s failure to deliver justice.
“Cy Vance’s retirement, therefore, represents an opportunity for currently wrongfully imprisoned people from Manhattan to be exonerated—depending on who is elected,” he added. “I personally am rooting for Dan Quart, given his huge body of work as Assemblyman on wrongful conviction issues.”
Janos Marton, who had been a leader in the Close Riker’s Island movement as well as a candidate for DA before bowing out earlier this year, now is the director of Dream Corps Justice.
He noted that Vance “was DA during a period of dramatic rethinking about our criminal justice system, locally and nationally, and under pressure his office did talk some positive measures, like reducing marijuana prosecutions, and spending financial prosecution funds on positive programs.”
But he was critical of his overall record.
“(Vance) remains New York’s leading jailer. His office was unwilling to look beyond incarceration and embrace more forward thinking ideas on how to respond to our homeless and mental health crisis, support young people involved with the system, or allow people to fully take advantage of the city’s new diversion programs,” he said, and believes, “Manhattan is ready for a bolder District Attorney more in touch with our communities.”
The door is now open for progressive change in Manhattan.
“The open race for DA in Manhattan presents an important opportunity to impact criminal justice reform in a critical office and at a key moment in time,” said Miriam Krinsky, the founder and Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution.
She pointed out that the the new District Attorney in Manhattan would “immediately inherit significant cases” but they would also be “a key voice in moving broader policies and reforms that can promote humane and proven strategies to address timely issues of the day including bail reform, enhancing transparency, addressing racial inequities, police accountability, rethinking past excessive sentences that have fueled mass incarceration, and promoting deflection and diversion that reduce the footprint of the justice system.”
Krinsky said, “These are all areas where communities are increasingly calling for change, and where the new DA in NYC can join other reform-minded prosecutors around the nation who are moving reform.”
“While many of us have believed Vance was *likely* to retire, this announcement, made with a few weeks left in ballot petitioning, helps clarify the race to succeed him,” Janos Marton explained. “It’s clear that the race is between establishment candidate Tali Weinstein Farhadian and whichever progressive candidate can coalesce the most support on the left.”
For Dan Quart, he believes that the time is right for change.
But, as he pointed out, “That all depends on whether they select a practical progressive as district attorney.” He noted his record as a “decarceral progressive” in the legislature, but there is the need to be practical in terms of “the ability to actually accomplish things.”
Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.
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