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Decarceration Activist Janos Marton Launches Run For Manhattan D.A.

An organizer in the effort to close New York City’s Rikers Island jails is challenging Cyrus Vance Jr., whom he calls ‘the city’s leading jailer.’

Photo of Janos Marton at microphone
Janos MartonKaren Smul for JustLeadershipUSA (edited)

Janos Marton, a leading organizer in the New York City decarceration movement, has told The Appeal he will run for Manhattan district attorney in 2021.

The 37-year-old civil rights attorney is challenging Cyrus Vance Jr., who has served the borough for nearly a decade. Arguably one of the most high-profile prosecutor positions in the country, Vance has been the target of criticism for decisions by his office that seemed to favor powerful defendants such as Jeffrey Epstein, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein

Marton said he would approach such cases differently. “If someone has a well-connected defense attorney or firm representing them, we need to make sure that their client and that case is being treated like any other, and not being given favors,” Marton told The Appeal in an exclusive interview. What we can’t have, however, is two systems of justice: one for the rich and powerful, the other for low-income communities of color.” 

Reached by phone, Vance disputed the notion that the recent controversies reflected a broader pattern. “I simply have to disagree that the way we practice law is designed to protect people with privilege,” he said. There are “many men, many of privilege, who we have prosecuted for sex crimes offenses, for sex trafficking, for a number of other crimes and white collar crimes.” 

As district attorney, Marton said he would put more resources into prosecuting people who exploit their power. He would go after employers who steal wages from workers, for instance, and landlords and real estate developers who contribute to the city’s housing crisis. But the core of Marton’s platform revolves around those at the other end of the income spectrum who are often jailed for low-level crimes.

We need to think beyond putting people in cages as an answer to society’s problems.

Janos Marton candidate for Manhattan DA

If elected, Marton said, he would commit to reducing the number of Manhattan defendants in New York City jails by 80 percent by the end of his first term. He would achieve that goal by declining to prosecute certain sex work and drug possession offenses, he said, and by detaining people pretrial only as a last resort.

“We need to hold people accountable for the harm that they cause, but we need to think beyond putting people in cages as an answer to society’s problems,” Marton said. He considers his vision in line with a growing national push for progressive, decarcerative approaches to criminal justice.

“What’s become really clear to me is that there is a significant political appetite for the kind of transformative change that I believe in,” Marton added, naming inspirations like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Boston’s Rachael Rollins, DAs elected in the last two years who have promised substantial reforms. 

Marton joins a small field of expected Vance challengers. State Assemblymember Dan Quart of Manhattan, a former Legal Aid Society attorney, is considering a run. And New York Law School professor Alvin Bragg, a former deputy in the state attorney general’s office has formally announced his campaign. Quart and Bragg have both emphasized the need to address mass incarceration through bail reform and by reducing racial disparities in New York’s criminal legal system.

But Marton said he has more experience than his rivals in achieving reform. From 2016 to 2018, he managed the #CLOSErikers campaign for JustLeadershipUSA, a New York-based decarceration advocacy group, which helped push the city to shutter the notorious Rikers Island jails.

In 2017, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice unveiled a 10-year plan for closing the Rikers jails and refurbishing or building new facilities in each of New York’s five boroughs. Though some advocates criticized JustLeadershipUSA as too willing to compromise and accept new jails, Marton said the political landscape was different when the campaign began, and it had always been about shrinking the jail system and investing savings into communities most harmed by incarceration.

Marton also worked briefly as an attorney litigating civil rights cases with Siegel Teitelbaum & Evans, before serving as a special counsel to the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, where he looked into the flow of money in New York state politics. Last July, he became the state campaigns manager for the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign, an effort aimed at cutting the U.S. jail and prison population of 2.3 million in half

Manhattan locks people up at a higher rate than any other borough.

According to city Department of Correction data, in the last three months of 2018, Manhattan had the highest daily jail population of any borough at 2,820. The more heavily populated boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens had average daily jail populations of 1,741 and 1,562. Though Manhattan significantly reduced its jail admissions between 2014 and 2018, it still locks up people at a higher rate than any other borough, and is responsible for the biggest chunk of the city’s detainees. 

“Cy Vance is New York’s leading jailer, and he is remarkably skilled at describing himself as a progressive champion for reform, while allowing the system to continue pretty much the same way it’s always operated,” Marton said.

But Vance, who would be seeking a fourth term as DA in 2021 if he decides to run, said the label “progressive” is not one he assigned himself and he’s more concerned with being effective. He said his office has taken steps to significantly decrease its criminal justice footprint: The office processed 86,000 low-level misdemeanor and violation cases in 2012, but reduced that caseload to roughly 45,000 low-level cases by 2018. 

Vance pledged almost a year ago to end prosecution of most marijuana possession and smoking cases. Ninety days into his decline-to-prosecute policy, Vance’s office recorded a 94 percent drop in such cases and declared that it had “exited the marijuana business.” Similarly, Vance reported a 96 percent decline in subway fare evasion arraignments in the first year after vowing to stop prosecuting them.

Still, advocates say, far too many New Yorkers are getting embroiled in the criminal legal system. Bus fare evasion, for instance, continues to be prosecuted. 

“There is still much more work left to do to limit New Yorkers’ contact with the criminal justice system and needless incarceration,” Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, told The Appeal. She noted that Vance’s office still prosecutes crimes of poverty, such as when homeless people steal sandwiches and other necessities. 

Bob Gangi, executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, a nonprofit whose work includes monitoring arraignments in criminal courts across New York City, said his volunteers still see low-level prosecutions of offenses like driving with a suspended license, petit larceny, disorderly conduct, and trespass, including in Manhattan.

I have personally experienced the indignities of stop and frisk.

Janos Marton candidate for Manhattan DA

Vance said his office was working to further reduce such prosecutions. One newly revamped program would allow young adults and adults arrested for low-level offenses and issued desk appearance tickets to receive social services tailored to their needs, according to his office. Under the criminal justice reforms passed in the state budget that become effective on January 1, virtually all misdemeanors will be eligible for diversion without the imposition of cash bail.

Though Gangi and other advocates welcome such programs, they say a deeper change is needed. “We welcome a challenge to Vance, particularly if the challenger is running on a reform platform that is similar to what Tiffany Cabán ran on,” Gangi told The Appeal. “That would put the current DA’s offices out of business, essentially.”

New York’s June 25 Democratic primary election for Queens DA drew national headlines for Cabán, a Manhattan public defender who ran in a crowded field on a platform of decarceration, vowing not to prosecute “sex work, recreational drug use, and racist laws.” (The tight race will be decided for Cabán or Queens Borough President Melinda Katz after a manual recount of 90,568 ballots, which began last Monday.) Marton was an early supporter of Cabán, and said he hopes Manhattan voters respond to his vision for the Manhattan DA’s office in a similar way.

“It turned out that when [voters] heard her bold vision for reform, they were drawn to it, they were excited by it, they did not express anxiety about it,” Marton said. “I certainly hope to carry on the best lessons from that, in this campaign.”

Among other commitments Cabán made during her campaign was to withdraw from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, a lobbying group that represents all 62 of the state’s DAs. The association has opposed recent criminal justice reform measures, such as a complete end to cash bail for nearly all misdemeanor offenses and new discovery rules that would make physical evidence and witness lists available to defendants’ attorneys much sooner than the start of trial. 

Vance, a past president of the DA association, has been under pressure to distance himself from the group, but told The Appeal it has value for New York City.

“I do think it’s a good thing to maintain contact and associations with prosecutors from other counties,” he said. “I think that’s a smart thing to do rather than a weakening of the principles that define our office.”

Marton, on the other hand, said he would withdraw from the DA association immediately upon taking office. “I would follow Larry Krasner’s lead in PA and Tiffany Cabán’s pledge in Queens in taking this step until DAASNY changed its approach to legislation and messaging around criminal justice,” he told The Appeal. (Krasner quit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association last year.)

Marton, a New York native, is the child of immigrants from Hungary and India, and was raised by a single mother in a rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. 

“I grew up a brown teenager in Rudy Giuliani’s New York, and I have personally experienced the indignities of stop and frisk,” Marton said. “While I’m in many ways privileged, those experiences did not set me back in my life the way they have for so many other people who look like me.”

The decision to launch his campaign more than two years before a primary is a recognition that he needs time to build a campaign that can take on what he called “the well-funded Cy Vance machine.” 

“The breadth of my career experience has allowed me to understand how broken our criminal legal system is, from top to bottom,” Marton said, “and how much of it we need to dismantle, if we are to truly reverse mass incarceration.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with a tweet from the Manhattan DA’s office regarding bus fare evasion.