After weeks of protests over racism in policing and the criminal justice system writ large, five candidates vying to replace Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in the 2021 election called for ending cash bail and decreasing prison populations at an online forum.
Vance, who has yet to announce whether he will run for a fourth term in the 2021 election, did not participate in the July 14 discussion hosted virtually by the New York City Program Council and Columbia Law School's Black Law Students Association.
But his absence didn't stop Vance's challengers from criticizing the Democratic DA's tenure as they sought to demonstrate their own progressive — and in some cases abolitionist — bona fides.
"This is the most progressive field we have ever seen for a DA race in Manhattan," said Rachel Barkow, a New York University
law professor who moderated the event. "Although the candidates all expressed a desire to reduce incarceration, they were all also committed to public safety and emphasized that there are better ways to achieve it than locking people up."
The participating candidates included civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, former New York State Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg, civil rights attorney Janos Marton, career public defender Eliza Orlins and New York Assemblymember Dan Quart.
Liz Crotty, a criminal defense lawyer, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, have also declared their candidacies but did not participate.
During the debate, all five participants pledged to reject campaign contributions from law enforcement interest groups and police unions. Marton and Bragg added that they would reject contributions from corporate interest groups and any lawyers who appear before the DA, and Quart said he would reject contributions from criminal defense attorneys practicing in Manhattan.
Vance has faced criticism for accepting such contributions from attorneys representing Harvey Weinstein and others representing members of the Trump family. In 2015, Vance's office initially declined to prosecute Weinstein on sexual abuse charges before reversing course and winning a conviction in February.
In 2012, Vance ended a criminal fraud investigation into Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. after Marc Kasowitz, their attorney at the time, donated $25,000 to Vance's campaign. A second contribution of $32,000 came five months later, but Vance returned the money in 2017 after it made headlines.
In 2018, Vance pledged to no longer accept contributions from lawyers with pending cases and said he would ask campaign officials to keep donor names secret, but the candidates last week noted other ways his office has sustained an unjust criminal legal system.
Orlins, a former contestant on reality shows like "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" who has spent 10 years as a public defender, called Vance "cozy" with police and said he has used officers who previously lied under oath to pursue convictions.
"He has repeatedly used his power to shield them," she said. "I have spent my career as a public defender cross-examining police officers and holding them accountable for the harms they've perpetrated on the thousands of human beings I've represented in this city."
A representative for Vance said in an email that he is "focused on continuing to make New York City's justice system fairer for all New Yorkers, but particularly those who have been historically impacted by our criminal justice system."
"During his time in office, Vance has ended the criminal prosecution of tens of thousands of low-level offenses, built Manhattan's Family Justice Center for victims of domestic violence, and invested hundreds of millions of financial crime forfeiture dollars into Manhattan communities to strengthen families and prevent crime," the spokesperson added.
Bragg, who is Black, described his upbringing in Harlem and his personal experience being held at gunpoint multiple times by New York Police Department
officers. He said his time in the state attorney general's office included directing investigations of police-involved killings and NYPD's unlawful stop and frisk stops.
"Whether it's posting bail for family members, talking to a family member about his time in solitary confinement, or having to talk with my own children about eventual NYPD stops that I know will happen, the work remains personal," he said. "We need fundamental change in Manhattan."
Aboushi, who is president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, laid out a plan to make the DA's office transparent and address the root problems of crime by refocusing the justice system from incarceration to decarceration. Noting that her father spent 20 years in prison, she said she has walked in the shoes of those most impacted by prosecutorial discretion.
"I will tear down the police, prosecutor and prison pipeline," she said, adding that Manhattan has had just four DAs in the past 90 years, all of them white men. "'I'm going to transform this office away from protecting the privileged and powerful and toward serving victims and communities impacted by systemic racism."
Marton highlighted his experience leading the campaign to close Rikers Island, New York's notorious jail complex, and a nationwide decarceration campaign for the American Civil Liberties Union
. He said he would work to reduce Manhattan's jail population by 80% and end cash bail.
"I believe in a world without prisons and I have a plan to get us there," he said. "Ending cash bail is a starting point, but so is reforming the plea bargain process, expanding alternatives to incarceration and not seeking any kind of jail time for minor offenses."
All five candidates in the debate look to join the ranks of a growing number of so-called "progressive prosecutors" who have focused on things like wrongful convictions, reducing jail populations and ending cash bail. Quart explicitly name-dropped Larry Krasner, the former public defender who now serves as Philadelphia's district attorney, as an example of how he would run Manhattan's office.
He also stressed legislative advocacy he's provided from Albany over his nine years as an assemblymember, including a successful seven-years-long effort to decriminalize gravity knives — which Vance opposed — after data revealed racially disparate enforcement
"The factor that distinguishes me from the other good lawyers in this race is my actual history of achieving results," he said. "I've defeated Cy Vance, passing reform and stopping some of the most punitive practices, in the Legislature and in the courtroom."
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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.