By Linda So and Jason Szep
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In 46 years, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has changed leaders only twice, in low-key elections focused heavily on fighting crime.
Not this year.
Whoever wins this election could transform law enforcement in America’s biggest city with policies aiming to imprison fewer people. The winner will also inherit one of the nation’s most politically fraught cases: a criminal investigation into former president Donald Trump’s business dealings.
The nine candidates - the largest and most diverse field in the office’s 220-year history - offered competing visions in interviews for how to police Manhattan’s 1.6 million people.
Nearly all said they would jail fewer people for minor crimes and address systemic racial bias. Most would eliminate or curtail cash bail, which they argue disproportionately impacts poor defendants. And while all declined to comment on how they’d handle the Trump probe, without knowing all the evidence, several touted their credentials for taking on powerful people like the former president.
“Nobody is above the law, no matter who you are or what office you went on to occupy,” said Tali Farhadian Weinstein, 45, a former federal prosecutor and general counsel to Brooklyn’s district attorney.
Another candidate is a former reality TV show contestant. One is an Iraq war veteran. A third said police pointed a gun at his head when he was a teen. Six are women vying to make history as the first female Manhattan D.A.
Their campaigns reflect a national reckoning over tensions between law enforcement and racial minorities, along with a push for more diverse leadership in institutions traditionally run by white men. The next D.A. could influence crime policy nationally because of New York’s trend-setting impact on other big cities.
New York tested some policy changes similar to those proposed by the candidates during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as early release from jail or prison to reduce overcrowding. Many want to go further by ending prosecution of low-level crimes such as trespassing, driving with a suspended license or disorderly conduct.
“These cases don't make us safer,” said candidate Alvin Bragg, 47, a former federal prosecutor and deputy New York attorney general. He said he would “drastically” reduce misdemeanor prosecutions, most of which involve minorities. “We've got to deal with these racial disparities,” he said.
Bragg, a Harvard Law graduate and the only Black candidate, grew up in Harlem and describes a 1989 incident where police mistook him for a drug dealer and put a gun to his head. He said the encounter inspired him to become a lawyer.
Five candidates identified low-level crimes they wouldn’t pursue. Eliza Orlins vowed to decline prosecution of “the vast majority of misdemeanors.” Orlins, 38, is a public defender and a former participant on the CBS reality shows “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race.”
The push to end prosecution of certain crimes could have sweeping implications for public safety, said Rebecca Roiphe, a New York Law School professor who is not involved in the election. "The question is,” she said, “how much can we do reform and also keep our priorities of crime control in mind?"
Four of the eight Democratic candidates would eliminate cash bail. Another one would end it for misdemeanors.
Bail is money paid for jail release to guarantee a defendant’s court appearance. It's a system used only in the United States and the Philippines. Critics argue it often becomes a debt trap for poor defendants, who typically pay 10% of the bail to a bail bondsman, who puts up the full amount but gets it back when the defendant appears.
In January 2020, New York State enacted sweeping changes to curtail cash bail for many nonviolent offenders. But the law was repealed months later after critics said it led to a spike in crime.
Candidate Dan Quart, 48, a seven-term state lawmaker, introduced legislation to end cash bail in 2018 and would seek to end the practice as D.A. “It’s punitive and unnecessary,” he said.
Also running on an anti-bail plank is Lucy Lang, 40, a former Manhattan prosecutor. She supports alternatives such as text-messaging defendants to remind them of court dates.
‘BAD OLD DAYS’
Two candidates - Liz Crotty, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor; and Iraq war veteran Thomas Kenniff, the lone Republican - said a bail system is needed for repeat offenders posing a safety risk. “Bail reform has to speak to the recidivist offender,” said Crotty, 50.
The race is heating up ahead of a June 22 nominating contest to select the Democratic candidate who will face Republican Kenniff, a 45-year-old lawyer, in the November 2 general election. Kenniff says limiting enforcement for low-level offenses would make the city more dangerous. “The last thing we want to do is roll back law enforcement in underserved neighborhoods,” he said. “We don't want our city to turn back to the bad old days.”
The leadership change in the massive prosecutor’s office, with more than 500 lawyers, coincides with November elections for mayor and all 51 seats in the city’s legislative body. So far, the D.A. candidates have raised a combined $6.5 million, led by Weinstein’s $2.2 million, nearly double her closest rival, Bragg, at $1.3 million.
Three of the candidates - Tahanie Aboushi, Orlins and Quart - have no prosecutorial experience. Orlins called it an advantage to come from outside of the city’s “unjust and cruel” justice system. “It’s time to bring about real change,” she said.
Overshadowing the race is the Trump investigation, opened in 2018 by current District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. The probe initially examined alleged hush money payments made to two women who claimed during Trump’s 2016 campaign that they had affairs with him years earlier. It has since moved on to examine whether Trump’s businesses engaged in criminal tax evasion or other improprieties. Vance announced in March that he would not seek re-election to begin a “new chapter” of life, triggering the handoff of the Trump probe.
While the investigation has moved slowly, a person familiar with the probe said indictments could come this summer. Mark Pomerantz, a veteran white-collar crime lawyer in the D.A.’s office, leads much of the investigation, a role that’s expected to continue after the election, say two people familiar with the probe.
Several candidates noted their previous experience suing Trump. Bragg, for instance, was chief deputy for the New York Attorney General’s office when it sued the Trump Foundation in 2018, resulting in the charity’s dissolution. “I've done this type of work under this type of scrutiny,” he said.
Aboushi, a civil rights attorney running for D.A., said that after Trump imposed his Muslim travel ban in 2017, she spent four days at JFK Airport leading a team of lawyers petitioning for the detainees’ release. “I’ve been consistently fearless in the face of power,” said Aboushi, 35, whose campaign has said she would be the nation’s first Muslim D.A.
Candidate Diana Florence, a former top deputy in Vance’s office, said Trump’s family business should have faced scrutiny years ago. Florence, 50, touts her 25-year career as a Manhattan prosecutor as one of her top selling points: “There is no one more qualified to take on that investigation.”
(Reporting by Linda So and Jason Szep; editing by Brian Thevenot)