Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg Rapidly Backpedals on Radical Reforms

    Alvin Bragg, a former state and federal prosecutor, won the competitive 2021 Manhattan district attorney race by running as something of a compromise candidate: to the right of public defender Eliza Orlins and decarceration activist Janos Marton, but to the left of enormously wealthy real estate candidate Tali Farhadian Weinstein and ”tough-on-crime” former line prosecutor Liz Crotty.

    Bragg was arguably not elected to shake things up, therefore—with the notable exception of becoming the first Black Manhattan DA.

    Nonetheless, he did so within days of taking office. On January 3, as I described for Filter, DA Bragg issued a memorandum that shook the muted conservative elements of his city to the core. Promising maximum sentences of 20 years, declination of a raft of lesser charges and downgraded charging for crimes as serious as robbery, he put himself solidly to the left of firebrand DAs like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who spent his prior career suing the Philadelphia Police Department and representing Black Lives Matter protesters.

    For a few weeks.

    He said that “broken windows” policing can be saved if jails and prisons are not the only governmental response.

    On January 27, Alvin Bragg addressed an audience of community activists, academics and journalists at an event hosted by the Zimroth Center at NYU Law School.

    Faced with questions about how he would help residents feel safe, Bragg said he would focus enforcement on not just shootings but gun possession. He highlighted his own experience as a crime victim—someone put a knife to his neck before he turned 21. And he said that “broken windows” policing can be saved if jails and prisons are not the only governmental response.

    The Q&A session at the Zimroth Center would get any public defender in New York City to scream, “I told you so.” Despite stating that his original policy memorandum is a “framework” that is still in place, Bragg clarified that line prosecutors he inherited from former DA Cy Vance, whom he made a point of praising, will “still get their discretion.”

    If a civilian “pushes or hits” a cop, that person will be prosecuted with resisting arrest or worse. All robberies with a gun will be charged as felonies. While Bragg still plans to prioritize “certainty and immediacy of punishment” over harshness, he said he is not working on a “blank slate.” Pre-existing diversion programs under Vance—opposed by advocates because they coercively force services upon people who don’t want or need them, and still frequently lead to incarceration—are “proven to work,” the DA said, and he is just “building on it.”

    In other words, Bragg seems to have felt the heat of the outraged response to his memo from hard-right media like the New York Post. After a “huddle” with a PR consultant—as well as carceral Democrat Preet Bharara—Bragg has apparently decided that he will stay out of the true reform kitchen.

    While DA Vance did shrink the county’s prison admission rate from about 680 people per 100,000 to 415 during his 12 years in office, according to the Vera Institute for Justice, all that did was align the jurisdiction with the state’s average rate. States like New Jersey, Minnesota and Massachusetts still have lower per capita rates, as do countries including Costa Rica and Brazil, let alone all of Europe’s democratic nations.

    Meanwhile, Vance, himself the hyper-privileged son of President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, doggedly prosecuted mostly Black and brown trades workers for carrying knives they needed for work and propped up quack “bite mark” science in the name of maintaining dubious murder convictions. He meanwhile punted on the opportunity to indict former President Donald Trump’s adult children for white collar crimes.

    One of Bragg’s most disappointing answers on January 27 was to a question that he speculated must have come from a public defender. He dodged the core accusation—that his prosecutors are still asking for imprisonment on non-violent, low-level drug sales and gun possession—by stating that “some cases may have been active for a while” and that these recommendations may have been tied to plea deals from before January 1. “We must look at what’s coming through the door,” he said.

    I didn’t expect him to dial back this hard, this soon.

    Bragg demonstrated during this session that he does not know how to say no, which is anathema to the truly progressive prosecutor. He could have refused racist or denigrating questions, like when an audience member asked whether a Manhattan with a Black mayor, a Black DA and a Black police commissioner can truly protect public safety for all. He could have refused the pro-mass incarceration framing of old-guard prosecutors, police union leaders and their allies. He didn’t.

    When I originally wrote about Bragg’s memo, I noted that he had “shown himself willing to go further toward a downsized criminal justice system, at least in theory, than any district attorney before him,” while acknowledging that aspects of the memo were less radical than they appeared. At the same time, I warned that pushback from media, judges and parties with vested interests in the status quo could severely test the DA’s determination to stay the course.

    But I didn’t expect him to dial back this hard, this soon.



    Photograph by Mark Buckawicki via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 1.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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