In a time of rising mayhem on city streets, Manhattan’s new district attorney wants to dial back prosecution of minor crimes.
Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor sworn to office Jan. 1 as Manhattan’s first Black DA, told his staff not to bother with many cases of fare beating, resisting arrest and other nonviolent crimes — a move toward fulfilling his campaign promise of criminal justice reform.
“These policy changes not only will, in and of themselves, make us safer; they also will free up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime,” Bragg wrote in a memo dated Tuesday.
He promised that new initiatives and policies on guns, sex crimes, hate crimes, and other issues will be announced in the coming weeks
Law enforcement unions were skeptical, and feared the new policies would reduce cops’ legal tools to fight crime.
“He’s emboldening the criminal element to resist arrest and put New York City police officers and detectives in harm’s way,” said Paul DiGiacomo, head of the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, said although he had “serious concerns” about Bragg’s proposals, he was willing to talk them through with the new DA.
“Police officers don’t want to be sent out to enforce laws that the district attorneys won’t prosecute. And there are already too many people who believe that they can commit crimes, resist arrest, interfere with police officers and face zero consequences,” he said in a statement.
Mayor Adams, a former NYPD officer, seemed willing to give Bragg the benefit of the doubt, for now.
“I have a lot of respect for DA Bragg … He has a real vision,” Adams said at a press conference when asked about the new policies. “We’re all going to come together and wear one jersey: Team Safe New York.”
Bragg’s memo gives his assistants many specific instructions on how to handle parts of New York’s penal code — but he also cautioned that they’re not set in stone.
“My commitment to making incarceration a matter of last resort is immutable,” he wrote — before adding: “The path to get there through these policies will be dynamic, and, not static.”
He said he’d be speaking with his staff about the changes in the coming weeks.
Bragg’s instructions to his assistants come with plenty of caveats.
Resisting arrest can only be charged if the person is resisting arrest for a serious crime — and the charge of obstructing governmental administration can only be charged against people who are aiding someone who is resisting arrest.
Bragg asked his staff not to pursue certain misdemeanor cases of trespassing — so long as they don’t involve stalking or crimes covered by laws meant to bar abuse by family members against each other.
Burglary can only be prosecuted as having happened in someone’s home if suspects enter a place with direct access to a building’s residential space, the memo says.
That means people who burglarize apartment building basements, or basements of commercial buildings with apartments on upper floors, would face burglary charges carrying lesser punishments.
Bragg said that in prostitution cases, assistant district attorneys can still charge sex traffickers and pimps. And any of the misdemeanor charges on Bragg’s list can be prosecuted if they are part of an indictment that includes a felony charge.
Aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle can only be charged if a motorist is also accused of involvement in dangerous driving or crashes that injure someone, Bragg’s memo says. It can’t be used against people whose only offense is failing to pay fines.
Bragg said his policies will improve public safety and curb crime. “Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer,” he wrote.
Bragg’s new policies take further many practices of his predecessor, Cy Vance.
Vance in 2018 stopped prosecuting most fare beating cases. Also that year, Vance ordered a halt to prosecution of marijuana possession cases, except for those involving sales or cases that posed some public danger. He and other DAs around the city also sought dismissal of thousands of pot possession charges.
Vance stopped prosecuting prostitution cases in 2016, and along with other city DAs sought dismissal of thousands of charges of loitering for the purpose of prostitution and providing massages without a license. Bragg’s memo appears to continue that policy.
In his memo, Bragg advised assistant DAs that people who miss court dates won’t automatically be assumed to be fleeing law enforcement, resulting in bench warrants. And prosecutors will consider undocumented people’s immigration status before filing charges. The office is also scaling up support for New Yorkers coming out of the system post-conviction.
Bragg, a Harlem native, explained his desire for the new rules by citing personal experience and proximity to violence.
“Before I was 21 years old, I had a gun pointed at me six times: three by police officers and three by people who were not police officers. I had a knife to my neck, a semi-automatic gun to my head, and a homicide victim on my doorstep,” he wrote of his life growing up in New York City in the 1980s.
“In my adult life, I have posted bail for family, answered the knock of the warrant squad on my door in the early morning, and watched the challenges of a loved one who was living with me after returning from incarceration.”
Jullian Harris-Calvin of the Vera Institute of Justice lauded the moves by Bragg, who she said was poised to be a very different DA than his predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr.
“Manhattan sends more New Yorkers to Rikers Island than any other borough, and DA Bragg’s directive hits directly at the heart of the problem,” said Harris-Calvin.
Bragg said keeping defendants out of jail before their case goes to trial will now become standard practice except for homicides and violent assaults including sex offenses, domestic violence cases, and cases involving “public corruption, rackets, or major economic crimes.”
The new DA cites the crisis on Rikers Island, where 16 prisoners died in 2021 awaiting trial, among reasons for reserving pretrial detention only for severe cases.
Bragg also set out a new policy on sentencing requests, saying that the office would request a maximum of 20 years in prison for all crimes that do not have a life-in-prison option. He also noted the office would never seek life without parole in any case.
And the new administration will strive to limit the number of young people tried as adults, which Bragg said evidence shows will lower recidivism rates and make communities safer.
A source at the DA’s office said the new framework intends to keep people safe from violent crime while challenging the notion that incarceration equals safety through data-backed approaches.
“The present system, that recycles people in and out for 30 days — or three months — and they come out worse, has been ineffective,” the source said.
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