Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?

New York’s association of state DAs has fought measures such as bail reform, but three candidates in Manhattan’s DA election say they would not join it.

Sam Mellins   |    February 2, 2021

Manhattan’s DA election could weaken influence of the New York state prosecutors association this year, by costing it the membership of one the state’s most prominent prosecutors’ offices. (Photo from DAASNY)

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

New York’s association of state DAs has fought measures such as bail reform, but three candidates in Manhattan’s DA election say they would not join it.

This article is published as part of a partnership between New York Focus and The Appeal: Political Report to cover Manhattan‘s 2021 elections. Read our first article, on the war on drugs, here.

The District Attorneys Association of New York (DAASNY), an association of New York prosecutors that generally takes tough-on-crime stances and in recent years fought reforms championed by state Democrats on prosecutorial misconduct and bail, is one of the state’s most powerful lobbying forces on criminal justice issues. All 62 of the state’s DAs are members of the association.

But Manhattan’s DA election could weaken DAASNY’s influence this year, by costing it the membership of one the state’s most prominent prosecutors’ offices.

Three of the eight declared candidates in the June Democratic primary—civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, public defender Eliza Orlins, and Assemblymember Dan Quart—told New York Focus and The Appeal: Political Report that, if elected, they would not join DAASNY and would instead seek to be a “counterweight” or “alternative” to the association in criminal justice policy debates. The Democratic primary is expected to decide who will replace Cy Vance, the incumbent who has not yet indicated whether he will seek re-election.

These three candidates would be part of a budding trend of DAs distancing themselves from their state’s prosecutors’ associations, which tend to be among the staunchest foes of criminal justice reform around the country. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner left Pennsylvania’s DA association in 2018, and San Joaquin County DA Tori Salazar left California’s a year ago. Other reform-minded prosecutors in California and Virginia have stayed in their states’ associations but formed competing organizations to advocate for progressive reforms.

Sandra Doorley, the Republican DA of Monroe County who became president of DAASNY last year, castigated the candidates who pledged to leave DAASNY. “Candidates for District Attorney who declare that they will not join DAASNY before they are even elected do not understand the immense value that comes from the connections made with fellow prosecutors that can lead to new ways to approach problem solving in all of our communities,” she said in a statement to New York Focus and the Political Report.

All but one of the candidates said that they would be interested in joining or forming an association of progressive DAs intent on promoting criminal justice reforms, regardless of whether they also stay in DAASNY, reflecting a desire by most of the field to position themselves as progressives. 

But some reform advocates warn that if the next Manhattan DA remains in the association, it would preserve DAASNY’s ability to present itself as the authoritative voice of prosecutors. For a DA to leave DAASNY would be a “signal that people are willing to break ranks” from the tough-on-crime conventions of the state’s law enforcement, said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaigns director at VOCAL-NY.

Should the next DA leave DAASNY, he said, “we’d finally have a DA in New York State that is actually attempting to be accountable to their specific constituents, as opposed to the most regressive DAs in the state.”

A century at the table

Founded in 1909, DAASNY has historically been a bastion of opposition to criminal justice reform in New York State. In the last decade, it has opposed the creation of a state commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct, limitations on the practice of trying minors as adults, and 2019’s discovery reforms.

In addition to opposing the landmark 2019 bail reform law and lobbying for its partial rollback in 2020, DAASNY gave prosecutors 90-minute trainings on how to use loopholes in the law to hold more defendants in jail pretrial.

“They have intransigently opposed for decades reforms that would decrease the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons, that would allow people access to due process, that would address the criminalizing of gravity knives, for example,” said Katie Schaffer, director of organizing and advocacy at the Center for Community Alternatives. “That is what DAASNY has done and stood for.”

DAASNY’s influence has somewhat diminished since Democrats won full control of the state legislature in 2018, according to former DAASNY president and current Albany County DA David Soares, who said the association worked especially well with the formerly Republican Senate and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. But the organization still exerts considerable sway.

“Any legislation related to the prosecution of crimes or the criminal legal system, DAASNY has been consulted and had a seat at the table,” state Senator Julia Salazar, chairperson of the chamber’s crime and corrections committee, told New York Focus and the Political Report. “They really had a big influence on the conversations on bail, and discovery and speedy trial in 2019, and again in 2020 when there were essentially rollbacks to bail reform, unfortunately.” 

In her statement, Doorley defended the group’s practices as fueled “by a common goal of sharing ideas and improving the criminal justice system.” 

“Together we use our broad experiences to assess whether proposals ensure sufficient protections to victims of crimes and whether a proposal will harm public safety while also safeguarding the rights of those accused of crimes,” she said.

In 2019, when prosecutors were fighting proposed reforms, advocacy organizations urged DAs who say they are progressive, including Manhattan’s Vance, to withdraw from DAASNY, but none did. In the DA race for Queens that year, Tiffany Cabán ran on a pledge to leave the organization, but she fell just short of victory.

Vance did not respond to multiple requests for comment on DAASNY.

Leaving DAASNY

The three candidates who said they would not join DAASNY detailed their stances.

Quart said that in addition to not joining the association, his nearly 10 years in the legislature would help him serve as a “counterweight” to its lobbying efforts in Albany. 

Quart noted that he has fought the association in the legislature and won, pointing to his seven-year effort to repeal a law banning gravity knives, which was passed and signed in 2019 over DAASNY’s objections, as an example.

Orlins said that as a public defender, she has “fought every day against prosecutors, and against the terrible outcomes for which DAASNY has lobbied,” adding that she hopes that the Manhattan DA choosing not to join DAASNY could have a “ripple effect.” 

“Manhattan is a place that a lot of people look to and think about as a model,” Orlins said. “So when the Manhattan district attorney says ‘I am no longer going to join DAASNY; I will not be part of this regressive group that has been an opponent of real change, and blocked criminal justice reform measures,’ that hopefully brings about real change across the state. Maybe it opens the door for other DAs to withdraw from DAASNY.”

Aboushi said DAASNY’s hard-line positions are out of step with the population of New York. “The positions of DAASNY have always been consistent, have always been clear,” she told New York Focus and the Political Report. “But when you look at what the people are demanding and what the city needs, you can’t go and do the same thing over and over. They need something different.”

The other five candidates who are all former prosecutors, took a different route. Their responses to New York Focus and the Political Report ranged from uncertain to supportive of membership in DAASNY.

Diana Florence and Alvin Bragg said they would remain in DAASNY, and Liz Crotty said she would “likely” do so.

Lucy Lang said she was undecided; this represents a shift for Lang, who had said at a forum last year that she would join DAASNY. Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s spokesperson did not indicate which course the candidate would take.

“Whether as a member of DAASNY or not, as district attorney I will advocate for reforms consistent with what the public is calling for,” Lang said. “DAASNY’s positions on everything ranging from bail reform to discovery reform are out of line with the values that I will bring the Manhattan district attorney’s office—and as district attorney, I will actively advocate against the positions the organization has taken on these critical issues.” 

A progressive alternative?

Other candidates echoed Lang’s commitment to advocate for more progressive policies even if they stay in DAASNY. One tool to promote progressive change, most said, would be to join an alliance of reform-oriented DAs. No such group exists yet in New York.

Aboushi, Orlins, and Quart said they hope to create an alternative prosecutors’ organization. Such an organization could foreground the views of “prosecutors who are for real reform,” Aboushi said.

Bragg, Farhadian Weinstein, Florence, and Lang all indicated that they would be interested in joining a reform-oriented DA association, even if they stay in DAASNY. Lang said she would do so “enthusiastically,” and Farhadian Weinstein’s spokesperson said the candidate would “look to create one.” 

Crotty declined to say whether she would join such an association.

Some of the candidates who said they would stay in DAASNY said they would push for changes in policy stances from within the organization.

“I believe in ‘having a seat at the table’ especially in elected associations that historically didn’t include people who looked like me,” Bragg, the only Black candidate in the race, said. Bragg, a former chief deputy attorney general in New York, is now co-director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School.

He added that he would “continue to speak out publicly and forcefully against DAASNY positions that I disagree with,” noting his record of support for ending cash bail and discovery reform.

Florence said that she, too, hopes to change the organization from the inside. “There is no question that the DA association has not been a voice for progressive change within the criminal justice system,” she said, noting her previous criticism of DAASNY and DA Vance’s opposition to a proposed change to New York’s rape laws to expand the legal definition of rape to include oral and anal sex. “I believe that as DA, I can use the bully pulpit and its incredible power to influence prosecutors statewide to embrace a more progressive, 21st-century view of criminal justice.”

Crotty said that “things don’t change unless you get in there and help them change.” But she declined to share a specific policy on which she disagreed with DAASNY’s views and would like to see change.

Asked about the possibility of reforming DAASNY from within, criminal justice reform advocates argued that regardless of the next DA’s individual stated positions, remaining within the group would bolster its legitimacy as the organization as a whole continues to fight reforms.

When they left California and Pennsylvania’s DA associations, Salazar and Krasner highlighted that a key source of these groups’ influence is their ability to project a sense of universal consensus among the state’s prosecutors. “The [Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association] will not claim legitimacy of its most important criminal justice jurisdiction and try to take us back 40 years,” Krasner said at the time.

DAASNY has functioned similarly, reform advocates said. It has presented its stances to Cuomo as “the collective perspective of our state’s prosecutors,” and media outlets frequently refer to its views as the views of the state’s prosecutors at large. Just one DA choosing to withdraw could disrupt this perception, advocates said.

Advocates were also skeptical of candidates’ claims that it would be possible for the next DA to change DAASNY from the inside. “I think it’s either naive or intentionally avoidant,” Schaffer said. “We have seen multiple self-identified progressive district attorneys … join DAASNY, claim to want to have a seat at the table, but not be able to shift what DAASNY looks like, and frankly not necessarily be very dedicated to that.”

“The idea that if one of these candidates was elected and joined DAASNY that they would either stay committed individually to really shifting DAASNY, or that they would be able to do so, seems to me highly unlikely,” she added.