Where The Manhattan DA Candidates Stand On Reform – LAW 360
With less than 90 days left in Manhattan’s district attorney race, eight candidates are setting the tone for how they intend to lead one of the nation’s most prominent prosecutorial offices.
Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who announced he will not seek reelection, is leaving an office that has come under fire in recent years for balking at the prosecution of powerful people, including movie industry mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was later convicted of third-degree rape, and members of the Trump family.
Vance’s successor will inherit a fast-moving investigation into former President Donald Trump’s finances, and a district that includes a mosaic of diverse communities struggling with a pandemic-related economic downturn and a recent rise in gun violence.
The candidates talked to Law360 Pulse this week to share the key points in their platforms.
TALI FARHADIAN WEINSTEIN
Farhadian Weinstein was a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for six years. She later joined the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, where she served as general counsel to Eric Gonzalez, playing a key role in reforms advanced by the office. She teaches at New York University Law School.
Farhadian Weinstein’s priority is to create a bureau of gender-based violence, with a lion’s share of the budget, which will prosecute sex crimes, domestic violence, sex trafficking, gender-based hate crime and gender-motivated cybercrime.
Gun violence is another priority in Farhadian Weinstein’s agenda. She plans to work in partnership with the NYPD, federal agencies and regional law enforcement agencies to crack down on gun trafficking. She will also focus on enforcing recently passed legislation on untraceable “ghost” firearms, and work with the city to open a gun court that would speed up prosecutions in gun possession cases.
“It’s so important to meet the moment in New York right now, with the horrible surge in shootings that we saw last year,” Farhadian Weinstein said.
Tapping into her experience working under Gonzalez, Farhadian Weinstein would build a post-conviction justice bureau that would field a conviction review unit similar to the one pioneered by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Farhadian Weinstein, who served on the New York State Bar Association‘s task force on hate crime in 2019, said the district attorney’s office should have increased powers in investigating suspected hate crimes early on.
Farhadian Weinstein said she doesn’t believe in prosecuting sex workers.
“People who are involved in prostitution need our services, our compassion, and our support, and not to be prosecuted in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Asked about the ongoing investigation into Trump’s finances, Farhadian Weinstein said she won’t speculate on what she would do if elected, but vowed to “follow the facts.”
“I’m not intimidated by anybody, no matter who they are,” she said. “I would approach that investigation like any other.”
Bragg’s high-level legal career began in 2003, when he joined the New York State attorney general’s office. He then served as a chief litigator for the New York City Council before landing as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, a position he held for four years.
Bragg came back to the state attorney general’s office in 2013, where he served until the end of 2018. He teaches at New York Law School, where he co-heads the Racial Justice Project. Bragg represented Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, in a lawsuit against the city seeking transparency around her son’s death.
Raised in Harlem, Bragg recalls being held at gunpoint multiple times during his youth. On some occasions, it was by police officers. Those experiences compelled him to study law, he said.
Bragg plans to prioritize downsizing the footprint of the district attorney’s office.
“More than 80% of our city’s docket are misdemeanors,” he said. “We need to shrink that system and focus on the kind of public safety cases that I’ve done my whole career: gun trafficking and matters like that.”
His other main priority is police accountability.
“We need a stand-alone unit of lawyers who are only investigating police misconduct,” he said, adding that prosecutors should not only look at the use of force but also lying by police officers.
Bragg said he intends to have fully staffed sex crimes and hate crimes units. On the issue of recidivism, Bragg said he would follow a “do no harm” approach, and decline to prosecute individuals for technical parole violations.
Orlins is the only public defender in the race. After graduating from Fordham University School of Law, she joined The Legal Aid Society in 2009 as a staff attorney, where she has since represented over 3,000 indigent defendants in criminal proceedings.
Her public defender experience allowed her to see the full extent of the power of the office she now seeks, particularly when it comes to prosecuting disadvantaged people, she said.
“I’ve seen how the criminal legal system is not broken, as some people say. It’s rigged,” she said. “It’s rigged in favor of those who are wealthy, well connected and powerful, and against everyone else.”
Orlins promised to shift away from what she sees as overprosecution of low-level offenses, and divert resources into preventive programs such as drug and mental treatment, and community-led alternatives to incarceration.
“I will decline to prosecute the vast majority of misdemeanors, decriminalize drug possession and consensual sex work,” she said.
Orlins denounced cashed bail and said pretrial detention should be used only for the most serious crimes. She firmly condemned “coercive” prosecution practices, such as the trial penalty.
“I will abolish it in its entirety,” she said. “[If] someone opts to go to trial, they shouldn’t be punished for that decision. The plea offers shouldn’t be getting worse because someone has chosen to hold the district attorney’s office to their burden of proof.”
Orlins envisions a “revolutionary, groundbreaking” conviction review unit that aggressively looks at injustice in the prosecutorial process, she said.
She also plans to create a worker protection unit prosecuting corporations that engage in wage theft and unsafe working conditions — a broad definition that includes sexual abuse as well as the presence of asbestos and lead or lack of heating in the workplace.
Punishing people who possess firearms with jail time won’t help solve the issue of gun violence, Orlins said. She plans on focusing on how guns are trafficked into the city, and on community-based services that help prevent escalations.
“We need to turn to proven methods of preventing violence,” she said.
Orlins said her record proves she is the only truly progressive candidate in the race, a jab directed at her opponents, most of whom are former prosecutors running as reformers.
“It’s become quite popular for people to spout progressive talking points,” she said.
Crotty is a former prosecutor who served for six years in the office of former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. She spent four of those years trying criminal cases, and the remaining two as a white-collar investigator taking on complex cases.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Crotty said she is running a “modern” campaign prioritizing public safety over reform. In that regard, the entire contest amounts to a bout between Crotty and everyone else.
“We have public safety problems,” Crotty said. “Tourists have left, commuters have left, Manhattan people have left. They’re not gonna come back in the same way if they don’t feel safe.”
Crotty, who has advocated deploying more police officers in the subway, said she believes the district attorney’s office should focus on enforcing state law, as opposed to playing a major role in reforming the justice system.
She is not against diversion and programming, she said, but she wouldn’t prioritize them.
“What differentiates me from the other candidates is that I do not have a ‘Do not prosecute’ list,” she said. “I’m not afraid to say that public safety matters.”
Crotty said she supports the reinstatement of the NYPD plainclothes anti-crime units, disbanded in June, which she said are crucial in cracking down on gun trafficking in the city. She said the district attorney’s office should do its part in cracking down on illegal gun possession.
“There has to be somewhat of a deterring effect,” she said.
Crotty said her experience both as a prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney allows her to “see both sides” and take up what she called “a very tough job.”
Prosecuting police misconduct isn’t among her priorities, she said.
“If a police officer has done something wrong, they need to be held responsible,” she said, “but you also have to support police officers in the job that they do.”
Lang worked for 12 years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. She also served as executive director at the Institute for Innovative Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she worked with district attorneys across the country, crime survivors, and justice system-involved people on criminal justice reforms.
Lang has been a lecturer at Columbia Law School since 2013.
“I’m committed to meaningfully shrinking the footprint of the criminal justice system,” she said.
The job of a district attorney goes beyond prosecution: it involves engaging communities, rehabilitation and prevention, she said.
Lang said she plans on diverting criminal cases “wherever possible” into social services addressing mental health, substance abuse and conduct related to poverty.
To tackle gun violence, which saw a peak last summer, Lang plans to fast track gun-related prosecution through a special court.
“I’m deeply aware of the devastation of gun violence on communities,” she said.
Lang pledged to build a well-funded hate crimes unit and a public corruption unit to investigate police misconduct. One of its tasks will be tracking adverse credibility findings against officers.
Lang plans to stop relying on mandatory minimum sentences to coerce defendants to take pleas, which increases mass incarceration, she said.
“I don’t believe in overcharging,” she said.
Lang said she won’t prosecute sex workers, but will crack down on people who seek to exploit them.
To boost the public’s trust in the justice system, Lang’s plan includes the creation of a “prosecutorial ombudsman” that would receive and process complaints of prosecutorial misconduct that could be filed, even anonymously, by ordinary citizens, attorneys and members of the judiciary.
Since 2011, Quart has been a New York State assemblymember representing Manhattan’s East Side. As a lawyer in private practice, Quart did pro-bono work, including volunteering with The Legal Aid Society, where he represented tenants facing eviction.
Quart said he aims to reform a district attorney’s office that is “stuck in an era of broken windows policing.”
“More prosecution doesn’t equal more public safety,” he said.
Quart plans to reduce incarceration, and to do so, he has a list of crimes he intends not to prosecute, he said.
He also plans to review the office’s drug-related policy and take a hard look at pretrial practices. He will seek to revamp the sex crimes unit in the office, he said.
“I have an aggressive agenda and no time to waste,” Quart said.
Quart plans to reroute resources into prosecuting sex crimes, white-collar crime, wage theft and cybercrimes.
Quart said he will make gun violence a priority, partnering with law enforcement agencies to stem the flow of firearms into the city, and prosecute people who use them. He will also offer diversion for some gun-related offenses, following the model set forth by Gonzalez in Brooklyn.
Quart pledged to invest in restorative justice, funding pilot programs such as the West Harlem Community Restoration and Reentry Project, which deploys credible messengers hired in the community to engage in crime prevention.
Pledging to hire a diverse legal and nonlegal workforce, Quart said he won’t make space for prosecutors who tend to overcharge defendants.
“They’ll have to find employment elsewhere,” he said.
With over 25 years spent in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, Florence has the most prosecutor experience.
“I believe that the power of the prosecutor has been misused by the current district attorney, maintaining the status quo, with an over-emphasis on crimes of poverty, while giving the powerful a pass,” she said.
As the head of the office’s construction fraud task force, she led complex racketeering investigations within the construction industry. She also prosecuted cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, gun violence, trafficking of contraband and real estate fraud.
Florence said her priority will be to retool the district attorney’s office to prosecute “crimes of power.”
“That means making sure that, when it comes to domestic violence or sexual assault, that we reject the myth of the perfect victim, and that we meet people where they are,” she said.
Another top item in Florence’s agenda is going after labor crimes, such as wage theft, or health and safety violations, which have been rampant during the pandemic, she said.
Florence plans to prioritize housing fraud, going after “landlords who have cheated to the tune of millions of dollars from unsuspecting rent-stabilized tenants.”
“They have been able to do that without any worry there was going to be any sort of backlash,” she said. “We have to make sure that when people incorporate fraud in their business model, that they will be held accountable.”
Florence said she understands many crimes in the city are connected to poverty — she mentioned drug abuse — but that incarceration is costly and ineffective in tackling them.
“I’m not about lists of crimes I’m not going to prosecute,” she said. “That’s the wrong way to approach the work of the district attorney.”
She added, “It’s not about what you’re not going to do. It’s about what you are going to do.”
To fight gun violence, Florence said she will partner with jurisdictions in other states to identify the routes through which guns make it into the city. But she will also engage in the community to work on the causes of shootings.
“People don’t shoot out of nowhere,” she said. Florence plans to use forfeitures to fund violence interrupters and other community-based organizations fighting gun violence.
Florence said she will not prosecute consensual sex workers.
Born and raised in New York City to Muslim Palestinian immigrants, Aboushi is an activist and a civil rights attorney at the Aboushi Law Firm PLLC in New York. She is a graduate of Syracuse University College of Law and has previously served on the board of directors for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In 2017, Aboushi co-led a legal team at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where she helped secure the release of people detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol following Trump’s enactment of a travel ban on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries.
When she was 14 years old, Aboushi saw her father being convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison, leaving her mother to care for 10 children. Her personal experience drove her into law, she said.
She envisions a reformed district attorney’s office that focuses on decriminalization, rehabilitation and prevention while being transparent to the public, she said.
“The district attorney is going to [be expected] to set policies. You have to have experience in making those cultural and ideological changes,” she said. “I’ve done that.”
Aboushi is not planning to prosecute “cases of social inequities,” including ones caused by mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, which should be addressed by public health and community-based organizations, she said. Aboushi plans to fully decriminalize sex work.
“We spend a lot of time prosecuting those issues, which result in pleas,” she said, adding that the district attorney has been reduced to a debt collector.
On gun violence, Aboushi said she will focus on prevention programs led by the community, relying on credible messengers and gun buyback programs.
“There’s a difference between gun possession versus a weapon that has been discharged, or one that results in injuries to another person,” Aboushi said. “We have to take these things on a case-by-case basis, understanding where the guns came from and why people feel the need to possess them.”
Aboushi said she doesn’t believe overpolicing and overprosecution are a solution to crimes, including those driven by hate or bias. Enhancing sentences for hate crime perpetrators doesn’t make victims feel safer, she said.
“As a Palestinian Muslim woman, as someone who wears a hijab, I’m no stranger to hate,” she said. “You’re never going to police, prosecute or incarcerate your way out of hate.”
–Editing by Marygrace Murphy.