‘Life Sentences Are Death Sentences.’ How This D.A. Candidate Wants to Decarcerate Manhattan

Dan Quart makes the case for addressing the "systemic breakdown" in New York’s prisons and jails with shorter sentences, ending cash bail, and other reforms.

Daniel Nichanian   |    March 11, 2021


This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Dan Quart makes the case for addressing the “systemic breakdown” in New York’s prisons and jails with shorter sentences, ending cash bail, and other reforms.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing home deaths in New York now threatens to derail his job, but his COVID-19 record had already been under fire in another area. He has defied calls to release incarcerated people and stalled on vaccinating them, compounding the deadly risks they face. And in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio downplayed risks at the Rikers Island jail complex last year as infections were spreading rapidly inside, the jail population has been rising, subjecting thousands to dangerous conditions 

Assemblymember Dan Quart, who is running to be Manhattan’s next district attorney, visited a state prison with two other lawmakers in February to assess the crisis that incarcerated people are facing. In a new interview with The Appeal: Political Report, he faults the “systemic breakdown” in state and city officials’ response to COVID-19. 

It speaks to a “level of indifference” by public authorities toward people detained in prisons and jails, he says. 

Last week, I talked to Quart about how he would challenge this culture of indifference. Quart is one of eight candidates in the June Democratic primary to replace the incumbent Cy Vance, who has yet to indicate whether he is running for re-election

Quart vowed to change the DA’s office’s approach to punishment and rehabilitation by not seeking sentences of life in prison. “That’s capital punishment by a different form,” he explained. He says he would presumptively not seek sentences of more than 20 years, though he would consider longer sentences in “extreme cases, such asmass shootings and domestic terrorism.”

And he expressed support for proposals that would strengthen the rights of people while they are incarcerated, including by halting the use of solitary confinement and enabling them to vote. 

To reduce incarceration, he also said he would use the vast discretion of the DA’s office to stop seeking cash bail and to stop prosecuting a lengthy list of lower-level offenses that include drug possession, sex work, and turnstile jumping. His promise to “reduce the footprint of the office” is in line with other Manhattan candidates’ turn to declination as a core tool of reform. Quart indicated he wishes to cut the DA’s budget, but did not specify how much he would cut outright versus reallocating resources within the office.

New York reformers have repeatedly run up against the organized opposition of law enforcement groups and elected prosecutors. But Quart says he would use the office’s bully pulpit to fight against that opposition and advocate for statewide reforms that would advance decarceration. He pointed to his efforts as a legislator to end cash bail and facilitate conviction reviews, as well as his successful push to legalize gravity knives.

Ever since the campaign for Manhattan DA began, it has been defined by candidates eager to showcase their commitment to decarceration and criminal justice reform. Still, plenty of policy differences have popped up. In February, an organization of public defenders hosted a forum (called “The Race to Decarcerate”) with four of the eight candidates—Quart, civil rights attorney Tahani Aboushi, public defender Eliza Orlins, and former deputy attorney general Alvin Bragg—to dig into what separates progressives.

This is the Political Report’s second Q&A with a Manhattan candidate, following an interview with Aboushi last month. The Political Report is also probing the direct contrasts between them with a series that has so far covered the war on drugs, sex work, and statewide advocacy.

The Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Daniel Nichanian: You announced earlier this year that you would visit state prisons to review the threat of COVID-19. How have New York officials, including the governor, done when it comes to protecting people in prisons and jails from the pandemic?

Dan Quart: Three weeks ago, I visited the Fishkill Correctional Facility in the Mid-Hudson Valley. It is very difficult to achieve any level of social distancing, even under the best of circumstances at our state correctional facilities. The biggest challenge is vaccinations, and the corrections department at Fishkill told us they were ready to vaccinate individuals there but they didn’t have a supply. Secondly, there’s a significant problem with an elderly population. Many people who’ve been cleared by the Department of Corrections for early release or release because of COVID protocols are still not being released, because they can’t find Medicaid-eligible beds in nursing homes or other places throughout the state. And that is a great failure on behalf of the state at all levels of government. 

Both at the state and the city level, there’s been a level of indifference to those who are incarcerated. They’re treated as third-class citizens, even though the COVID positive rates in our jails, in our state correctional facilities, is higher than the general population. There’s been a systemic breakdown in addressing this issue. 

Before the pandemic, there were already legislative proposals to enable early releases and to reduce the size of prisons. What do you think the state should be doing on this front?

There are two things at the state level. One is elder parole, which is just allowing people over a certain age to be parole eligible. It doesn’t actually release them, but it forces a hearing. The other part is sentencing reform and getting rid of mandatory minimums at all levels. 

But as district attorney, I can do more things in the courtroom to reduce incarceration. I would have a rebuttable presumption that there would never be a sentence more than 20 years; also decline to prosecute cases, which would get people out of the courtroom in the first place; and where possible, always ask for the minimum so that we are shortening those jail sentences on those occasions when we are seeking jail time. 

How will you also use the DA’s powers to also bring some relief to people who are already convicted and incarcerated?

That is the difficult part: I can do things prospectively much more easily than retroactively. To be honest, that requires action by the state, and I have legislation to that effect. Amongst the people running for DA, I’m in a unique position as the only legislator, so I think I would be the most effective DA in working with the legislature to ensure reforms I need to decarcerate.

One thing I can do as DA is create a conviction integrity unit that actually functions—it’s not functioning now under Vance. 

You mentioned restricting sentences of more than 20 years. The share of people in New York’s prisons who are serving a life sentence is among the highest in the nation. What would be your policy on life sentences, and where does your 20-year figure come from? 

We’re not going to ask for life sentences because life sentences are death sentences, and I don’t believe in capital punishment. That’s capital punishment by a different form, which I think is morally wrong, and I won’t do that. 

This process of a rebuttable presumption of 20 years is consistent with norms across the world on what is just punishment, which is why I set forth specific goals that the overwhelming majority of cases is going to be under 20 years. That’s also consistent with medical science and the concept of aging out of your violent phase, which essentially says that the 20- or 25-year-old who commits the crime, by the time he or she is in their mid 30s, they are physically a different person. To still punish them as if they’re that 20-year-old who is not fully formed is unfair. Also their recidivism rates by their mid 30s, if they’re released, are extremely low, because they are a more mature person. We would have sentencing policies consistent with those principles.

A “rebuttable presumption” leaves room for cases where you may seek sentences longer than 20 years, though short of life. What are cases where you may lift that presumption? 

Only in extreme cases, such as mass shootings and domestic terrorism, would I consider lifting this presumption.

And since many people are serving sentences longer than 20 years now: There’ve been proposals to end life without the possibility of parole and provide incarcerated people a hearing after some period of incarceration. Would you support legislation that would provide people a parole hearing after 20 years? 

Yes, I would support legislation to this effect.

A recent report by The Sentencing Project found that a majority of New Yorkers who are serving a life sentence are Black. How much do you think  prosecutors share responsibility for disparities like that, and how can you own up to that responsibility as DA?

Yes, much of the blame for the overpopulation of our state correctional facilities by people of color has to do not simply with the NYPD, but punitive prosecutorial practices. 

For seven years in the legislature, I fought to decriminalize something called gravity knives: This was used as a bump-up by Cy Vance to incarcerate individuals. Legal Aid said that 85 percent of those who were arrested on gravity knife charges were people of color. There is just one example of the discriminatory practices of arrest and prosecution implemented over the last 10 years by both law enforcement and this DA’s office. And I’ve achieved actual decarceral results by decriminalizing that specific charge. 

We’ve been mostly talking about the size of prisons, but New York’s jail population has been rising again during the pandemic. You have said you want to go further than the bail reform the state adopted in 2019, which was partially rolled back. Why did you find the 2019 bail reform insufficient?

I don’t believe in cash bail: I believe the connection between one’s wealth or lack of wealth in their liberty is immoral and not unconstitutional, and I wrote legislation four or five years ago to that effect. So I don’t think the original bail reform was appropriate. My view is to take the money equation or the bond equation out of the consideration, and that it’s not appropriate to consider money when determining whether somebody should be incarcerated pretrial or not.

How would you make sure that the end of cash bail doesn’t mean jailing more people without any option of getting out? That’s been a concern raised by reform advocates in some places that are pushing bail changes.

You’re right: Replacing cash bail with an expanded remand is not a solution. I would implement the system in Manhattan consistent with the legislation I wrote, which sets forth specific criteria in which we would seek pretrial incarceration. If someone’s a flight risk to leave the jurisdiction, if someone poses a physical threat to an identifiable person, or depending on the severity of specific felony charges, my assistant DAs would produce admissible evidence to that effect for the charge in and of itself and would seek remand. But in most cases, we would release people to go back to their homes, back to their communities. The pretrial systems in place are working; most people who find themselves in criminal court are going back to court. 

Law enforcement groups fought the 2019 bail reform that lawmakers then partially rolled it back. Your reforms, including not seeking cash bail, may well generate a similar reaction from them. What lessons did you draw from past conflicts for how you would respond?

This is the greatest distinction between myself and the seven other lawyers running for this office: I’ve been an elected official taking these positions, I’ve defended these positions in primary and general elections, where I was attacked for taking on these critical criminal justice reform issues. I think that should give comfort to Manhattanites that regardless of the criticism I will follow through on the reforms.

We were talking about the indifference toward the rights of incarcerated people earlier. One bill introduced in the last legislative session would restore the voting rights of people who are incarcerated, and another (HALT) would restrict the use of solitary confinement. What is your view on these bills?

I support both bills. 

On the solitary confinement bill: I have been a vocal and frequent critic of the way in which the Department of Corrections at the state level has not implemented reforms. This is an area where I think legislation is necessary because we simply can’t trust the Department of Corrections to implement these reforms on its own. 

One of your opponents who dropped out of the DA race in December, Janos Marton, had proposed dropping charges against defendants if he learned they were placed in solitary confinement. What is your view of that policy, and would you use that same threat as leverage to end solitary confinement?

It depends on what the charge is; it’s a case by case example. There are mechanisms within the DA’s office to try and ensure that someone is not in solitary confinement; I would liaison with corrections officials in the city or state to try and make sure that nobody was ever placed in a unit indicative of solitary confinement. 

You’ve released a list of offenses you would not prosecute if you become DA. Some DAs promote “alternatives to incarceration” and diversion programs, as part of pursuing charges. Why are you following this approach of declining to prosecute in the first place?

Alternatives to incarceration are still prosecution: The DA keeps the top count, ADAs are still assigned to the case, and you can’t reduce the footprint of the office because you still have resources in the case. 

I am setting a demarcation here with my list of charges that I will decline to prosecute. I’ll prioritize keeping Manhattanites safe, but expanding broken windows policing into the courtroom is not the way to do it. Arresting people on lower-level crimes or summonses doesn’t make us safer, and puts the police in conflict with communities of color, because for all sorts of reasons that’s where the arrests and summonses often are being written. 

I will help these individuals if they still want services. My office and social workers will liaison with not-for-profits who provide necessary services through the city budget. But that would be a voluntary service my office would provide if the individuals choose to avail themselves of it.

When you talk of reducing the footprint, to what extent are you thinking of the scope or the volume of prosecutions, and to what extent are you thinking of the actual resources that are going to go into the DA’s office? Would you work to shrink the funding of the DA’s office?

I’ve agreed to reducing the footprint of the office, and that requires a reduction of the budget. But I’ve also said that, until I take over in 2022 and evaluate the budget in each department, it would be irresponsible of me to talk in specifics about how much the budget should be reduced. 

One offense on your declination list is drug possession. At least one of your opponents includes drug sales on the list of offenses that the DA’s office should not prosecute. You have not included this on your declination list. What is your reasoning on this issue, and what if anything would you change from current practices?

That’s a good question. I’ve said publicly that I wouldn’t prosecute Operation Lucky Bag and other NYPD tactics that I think are coercive. There are other things, not on my decline to prosecute list, which shows how I would deal with drug sale cases differently: The problem is they have three-year or eight-year minimums, and in other cases, it’s a [Class] B felony with significant jail time. In a lot of those cases, I would reduce the charge to an A misdemeanor, or something less. I’m not condoning drug dealing—it’s still criminal conduct—but I don’t want to send people away for three, five, or eight years. That’s millions of dollars that Manhattanites will have to pay that can’t go to homeless services, helping our small businesses, or anything else.

The Manhattan DA’s office lends staff to the Special Narcotics Prosecutor to prosecute drug crimes. In December, you told us you would “consider” pulling that staff; you later said you would recall those prosecutors. To confirm: If elected, would you remove this staff?

I support legislation that would repeal the SNP office. Until that legislation is passed, I have pledged to transition the 57 Manhattan ADAs on loan to the SNP back to the Manhattan DA’s office.

Even if the DA’s office does not prosecute certain cases, the NYPD may still continue to arrest people in Manhattan for those behaviors since they operate independently. What would you do to bring policing practices in line with the approaches you would implement as a DA?

I’d like to believe that if I declined to prosecute a whole host of crimes, that will affect the way in which the NYPD addresses the problem. But I can’t ensure that: I can’t force my views on the NYPD the same way they can’t force their views on me if I’m elected. That will be up to the next mayor and police commissioner to make changes within the NYPD. 

What I can control is what I will and won’t prosecute. We’ve talked about the things I will decline to prosecute. What I will prosecute are economic crimes, things that protect workers and tenants, and reforming the sex crimes unit and addressing violent crime where appropriate and necessary. 

On that point, there has been some tension between those who say we should downplay the lower-level offenses to prioritize other crimes, and those who broadly resist ramping up criminal prosecution and a DA’s involvement. How do you think about that tension?

It’s about an allocation of resources. I am determined that I will reduce the budget for the DA office in some way and at some level. But it’s about moving your resources in smart and different ways to address the criminal conduct I’m talking to you about, also including cybercrime, confidence scams, credit card scams, phone scams against mostly our senior and immigrant communities in Manhattan that steal $5,000 or $10,000 from people who can ill afford to have that money stolen from them. That’s where I want to put my ADAs, my investigators, the money within the budget in the office. We can allocate resources to that because we’ll be reducing the footprint of the office in the many things we talked about.