Candidates For Open Manhattan DA Seat Meet in Candidates Forum

By David M. Greenwald

New York – All eight candidates for the open Manhattan DA seat met on Tuesday in an event hosted by the New York Jewish Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform and moderated by Udi Ofer of the ACLU.

All eight candidates attended and participated on topics such as hate crimes, decarceration, structural racism, gun violence, and police killings.

Five of the eight candidates indicated they were Jewish.

Cy Vance who has held the seat for 16 years, is not running for reelection.  The primary will be held on June 22 and the election will not use ranked choice voting as the Mayor’s race will.

“A district attorney is really one of the most powerful people in the criminal legal system,” Udi Ofer explained.  “They get to make decisions that impact tens of thousands of lives each and every year. They are the chief prosecutor in the borough and have extraordinary discretion on how their office operates. And this discretion is what gives them tremendous power.”

The first question dealt with hate crimes.

As Udi Ofer noted, “The attacks and discrimination have targeted the black community, the Muslim and Arab communities, the Asian community. And we have seen, in recent weeks in particular, the Jewish community, particularly visibly appearing Jews.”

For Eliza Orlins, while concerns about racism and the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, she said, “

I want to specifically say, and I have said this publicly, that the answer is not more incarceration. There’s no evidence that incarceration, additional penalties, additional enhanced sentencing, or carceral solutions will do anything to combat bias-related instances of violence. It just doesn’t help, it doesn’t work. It’s not the answer.”

She would add, “We need to think beyond policing and prosecution and enhanced sentences and incarceration as the solution to hate-based crimes. And then we need to condemn it in all cases as well.”

Tahanie Aboushi noted that “the hate crime is an enhancement on a substantive charge, which means to say that if someone doesn’t bring a hate crime charge, it doesn’t mean the person is not held accountable.”

Tahanie Aboushi: “How are we going to ensure education, dialogue, communication, rehabilitation in a meaningful way? Because when you talk about these sentencing enhancements, when you talk about extra time in prisons, what you’re saying is you’d rather invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in that incarceration versus putting that money into the communities, focusing on healing victims and restorative justice.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein: “I think it’s important to say that what makes a hate crime different from an ordinary crime is that when a hate crime occurs, it’s not just one person who is on the receiving end of the shove or the punch or the act of vandalism, but an entire community, an entire group of people are made to feel unwanted and inhibited and intimated. And that’s why I think we need to name it and to treat it differently from an ordinary crime.”

Diana Florence: “Look, hate crimes are, as Tali also said, right, that they’re directed to an entire community. And it’s really designed to say to an entire community that, “You don’t belong and you don’t matter.”

She added, “So I think it’s imperative to call hate crimes what they are. Understanding that there are enhancements, that does not mean that every single time we need to use prison, but we do need to have it on the table when it’s an act of violence. But we also need to stop being so reactive to hate crime.”

Dan Quart: “Using bump-ups or enhancements won’t change the conduct, so I don’t support using the felony bump-up in misdemeanor cases.”

Quart added, “The misdemeanor and felony assault on the statutes are sufficient enough to deal with this problem. But this is of course personal to me. I grew up in Washington Heights in the 1980s, was subject to hate speech and some level of physical assault because of my religion, so I understand it.”

Liz Crotty: “it starts at the beginning with the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force, who does work with the Manhattan DA’s Office to investigate these cases. They investigate these cases.”

She continued, “We also have to look at where we are with the investigation, work with NYPD. NYPD put in anti-crime Asian police officers to root out Asian hate crimes. They should be doing something similar in the recent protest where people have been beaten up because they’re visibly Jewish, where you can have an anti-crime officer to help root that out.”

Alvin Bragg: “when I was the head of the Social Justice division at the New York Attorney General’s Office, we saw a huge uptick in hate crimes when Trump was elected. And we took the lead with law enforcement around the state, educating them on the statute.”

He added, “I think it’s so important, whether or not you go on a restorative justice track or whether or not you use enhancement, to call them hate crimes, for the reasons that some of my colleagues have said, but also for data tracking so that we can follow and study this. The data from a government perspective in our state is not great on this.”

Alvin Bragg: “So my inclination is to use restorative justice and use some of the education tools which I have. But to not take off the table, in some of these heinous incidents, the enhancement as well.”

Lucy Lang: “what I intend to do is to create an independent hate crimes unit that has attorneys and non-legal stuff who are designated both to fully investigate hate crimes and prosecute them as appropriate, but also to liaise with communities and to improve training office-wide and collaborate with the NYPD, from a culturally humble perspective, to develop pathways that encourage reporting for victims of hate crime, and also that provide supportive services and wraparound services to crime victims to help overall improve community relations.”

Udi Ofer followed up, “Is there anyone who believes that sentencing enhancements for hate crime should always be off the table?”

Dan Quart was the only one to categorically take it off the table: “I thought I had more company, but that’s okay. Sometimes you have to stand alone for what you believe in. The point is that increased incarceration is not going to change conduct.”

He added, “364 days in Rikers Island is not letting somebody off the hook, or a misdemeanor or a felony assault as well. But I think this is just something… If you’re truly going to stand about principles of decarceration, if you’re consistent with the values many of us have been espousing through 10 months of this campaign, then I think you have to be for…”

Tahanie Aboushi added: “I wanted to say that our presumption would be to focus on restorative justice as we deal with the underlying charges and to reserve these enhancements in just extremely limited circumstances.”

Eliza Orlins: “I want to be clear. I do not favor sentencing enhancements. I think that there are incredibly harsh sentences available at the disposal of the prosecutors and I’ve seen them utilized.”

She added, “But in terms of the way that your question was phrased, which is that you will never, ever, under any circumstance, charge something as a hate crime, which in and of itself means that there could be subject to a sentencing enhancement, is something that I think I’m not categorically ready to say because there are circumstances under which something might be charged in that way.”

She continued, “Mr. Quart, by saying he will never, ever, ever use that as a sentencing enhancement means he will never charge a hate crime, because in and of itself it is a sentencing enhancement. So I just wanted to jump in with a little bit of nuance there saying I am not in favor of sentencing enhancements, but your question was very categorical.”

Udi Ofer asked another question:  “In Manhattan last year, 50% of people arrested were black, 34% were Latinx, and 12% were white, even though Manhattan is 46% white. This points to what many would describe as a tale of two Manhattans and two police departments; one for white New Yorkers and a second for New Yorkers of color.”

He asked, “Please be specific about your proposed reforms to end racial disparities in police conduct and arrest in Manhattan.”

Liz Crotty said, “we would redact the race and names of people so that we would be making charging decisions and bail decisions based on the pure facts of the case and not what the race of the person who is purported to commit a crime.”

She added, “I think that that is a very key thing because they say that the racial disparity starts at the beginning of the case. So if we have something at the beginning of the case that speaks to that implicit bias, I think that’s step number one in making a unified change.”

Eliza Orlins said, “So I have seen over and over again this systemic racism that you’re talking about, clients of mine who’ve been arrested for things that I as a white woman walking around Manhattan would never be arrested for.”

She noted, “Laying down on a park bench; a client who’s obstructing a park bench charged with an unclassified misdemeanor. Taking up two seats on a Subway; literally charged with the crime of occupying of multiple seats on a transit facility.”

She continued: “the way in which we deal with this is not just by having good intentions, but by actually having policies laid out that will reduce the racism that we see in our system. So that means declining to prosecute the overwhelming majority of misdemeanors. Ending the racist war on drugs, which has been nothing more than a war on people, particularly people of color.

“Ending money bail in its entirety. We know that money bail is something that has been disproportionately impacting people of color, which results in longer sentences, worse plea deals, coerced pleas, and having a plea plan.”

Diana Florence: “I challenge that premise of that’s what crime is. For too long we’ve been overly narrow on what we consider a crime.”

She added, “ultimately, for me, it’s about reprioritizing what we’re doing. It’s about looking at what comes across our desk, and making sure that we are holding all people accountable so that we don’t have those percentages that are flipped.”

Diana Florence: “It’s not about criminalizing things that aren’t criminal, but it’s about properly right-sizing the criminal justice system, including wage theft. Understanding if a kid steals an iPhone, but that cannot be a ticket upstate when and executive who steals millions gets a slap on the wrist.”

Tahanie Aboushi: “as a civil rights attorney, my job was to dissect what systemic racism means, and that means identifying abusive policies and practices and change them.”

She continued: “So two things I’m going to do: (1) scrap the Early Case Assessment Bureau and establish an arrest review unit, with an eye towards declining to prosecute cases while also gathering data on bad policing, whether it’s handling the evidence of how this case came to be, what is the demographics of the person being charged, and then what happens to the case from there.”

She added, “And then the second part is a police accountability and a prosecutor accountability unit, because the District Attorney’s Office has to be independent from the NYPD, and that means holding officers accountable beyond just putting them on a list, but also holding prosecutors accountable who cover for the bad policing because it makes for easy prosecutions.”

Alvin Bragg: “I’ve literally lived the statistics you cited. I mean, growing up in Harlem, having friends snatched away over ridiculous things that didn’t impair anyone’s public safety.”

He continued: “Specifically, what we need to do, it goes back to your initial statistics; shrinking the system. More than 80% of the city’s docket is misdemeanors. I think you had a slightly different number, your data may be more up to date.”

Additionally, he said, “we’re going to change our hiring practices. The DA’s Office is stunningly non-diverse. It does not prioritize people who’ve had life experiences like mine. So we need to draw from that, bring folks in who’ve had those experiences, that will inform our processes.”

And lastly, he added, “police accountability certainly is key. I would have a stand-alone siloed unit that would not work side-by-side with NYPD that would hold folks accountable.”

Tali Farhadian Weinstein: “I want to add just one thing to it, because systemic racism also manifest in the victims of crime. I think the Times said last week that 96% of the victims of shootings in the city this year were black or latino.”

She added, “At the front end, I do think that we have to shrink and just pull back from the cases that both don’t advance public safety and have manifested this kind of racism, like misdemeanor marijuana possession or enforcing the Loitering for the Purposes of Prostitution statute.”

Lucy Lang: “Yes to diverting cases out of the system that don’t belong there. Yes to declining cases that aren’t criminal. Yes to exonerations. But we have to start with a real reckoning.

“The District Attorney’s Office has been part of maintaining and exacerbating a history of racialized racist hegemony in this country. And the District Attorney’s Office has to look inward and come to understand that legacy.”

Dan Quart: “The way that you bring about the systemic change of eliminating racism within the office is eliminate the tools that lead to racist outcomes. And I’ll do that in two very specific ways, (1) through a declination of prosecution, but specifically focusing on crimes or charges where there is a direct racist outcome.”

Quart would add, “Dan Quart:

Discretion is the hallmark of what the five prosecutors in this race want, and it’s a good distinction because that discretion ultimately will be used for further incarceration. I don’t care what they say or what they put on their website.”

He continued, “That discretion will be used as Cy Vance uses it, for further incarceration, or some level of criminalization that puts somebody on a criminal record. I don’t want it. That’s why I limit myself and limit what I’ll prosecute, so there are clear lines.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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