The Manhattan DA candidate makes his case that more incarceration does not bolster public safety, one week from the Democratic primary.
Alvin Bragg, who recalls being held at gunpoint multiple times in his life by both civilians and police officers, is now challenging the idea that concerns for safety make people turn to tough-on-crime policies. Instead, the Manhattan DA candidate says, aggressive practices by the NYPD and the city’s criminal legal system worsened the issues he faced growing up in New York.
“I grew up being stopped and harassed under a broken windows theory [of policing],” Bragg, who is running in next week’s crowded Democratic primary, told the Appeal: Political Report in a wide-ranging Q&A. “And I can tell you, it alienated me and others like me who you might need later as a witness to something. You’re undermining community trust and the pursuit of public safety because you’re alienating the very people you will be relying on.”
The Political Report interviewed Bragg shortly after a New York Times column featuring one of the foremost champions of broken windows policing, former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton. Bratton tied the recent rise of homicides in New York City to the successes of the “defund the police” movement, even though murders have risen in many localities that increased police funding.
Asked about Bratton’s comments, Bragg denounced how critics of reform foment quick backlash toward any policy proposal. “I think the word ‘defund’ is being used as a shield to ward off having a substantive conversation and talking in detail about specific reforms that merit discussion, and not just reflexively rejecting them,” he said. He added that he wants to “use the different levers of government to address issues in a non-carceral way, and I would submit a more impactful way.”
Over the course of the interview, Bragg detailed his support for reforms such as taking the NYPD out of responding to mental health calls, improving the access to parole of people who are incarcerated for long periods, and declining to prosecute some categories of low-level arrests such as stand-alone charges of resisting arrest.
Bragg expects his policies to mark a “significant” decline in the volume of cases that his office would prosecute. Unlike some of his progressive opponents, though, he says he does not support a concurrent reduction to its budget.
He also stopped short of other candidates’ vows to decline to prosecute a longer list of charges, such as simple drug possession. He says he wants to steer such cases toward diversion programs that could avoid conviction and jail time, but that it would be valuable for the DA’s office to remain involved and condition a dismissal of charges on people’s “good faith participation” in treatment programs.
Bragg is a former federal prosecutor and a former deputy attorney general in New York, and now works as co-director of the New York Law School’s Racial Justice Project.
Manhattanites will not be using ranked-choice voting to select their DA, as they will be in the mayoral race on the same day. That means that they can choose only one candidate, and many contenders have laid claim to the progressive mantle, leading to a complex waltz of endorsements and strategic planning. In February, an organization of public defenders hosted a forum featuring four of the candidates (Bragg, civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, public defender Eliza Orlins, and Assemblymember Dan Quart) to dig into what separates the most progressive contenders when it comes to reducing incarceration and criminalization.
The Political Report’s interview with Bragg is its fourth with a DA candidate, fleshing out views about reform and mass incarceration in depth. It follows earlier interviews with Aboushi, Orlins, and Quart. Appeal Live, The Appeal’s video vertical, also hosted a forum featuring the eight candidates running for DA.
This interview is condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
In a much-circulated New York Times article, former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton linked “rising crime” to what he said is the “‘defund the police’ movement” getting what they want. [Context: Many cities that increased their police budgets have also seen a homicide increase.] Unsuccessful candidates who’ve recently run against criminal justice reforms have made similar arguments. What is your view on the connection that people like Bratton are drawing between crime rates and reforms or calls to shift resources away from policing?
For me, I’ve lived through all of this. I can tell you that in the 80s when I was growing up, when we were incarcerating more, I was not safer. Obviously, I’m concerned about gun violence. I’ve had two shootings very close in time to each other within three blocks of me. I’m still living in a neighborhood that is being affected by this. But talking in a data-driven and evidence-based way is important. I’d like to see data as opposed to just some atmospheric musings. When we talk about shifting money, I cannot see how changing homeless sweeps, which is a significant amount of the city budget for the NYPD, to people who work with homeless shelters connects with the uptick in gun violence. Sometimes a reform passes and within a matter of days, they’re saying, “Oh, it’s caused something.” It’s not cogent.
I think we need to talk in specifics. When I talk about the police budget, I talk about homeless services, I talk about mental health responses, I talk about police in schools. I think the word “defund” is being used as a shield to ward off having a substantive conversation and talking in detail about specific reforms that merit discussion, and not just reflexively rejecting them.
When you say the specifics on mental health responses: There have been calls for the police to not respond to mental health crisis calls. Is that a change you would support?
Exactly. We have models in other places in the country where that’s been successful. We know that we have people who work for the city who are trained in mental health or mental health professionals. Using the core competencies of people who have the training in something, rather than reflexively using the police for something. And look, this is sometimes a matter of life and death: Many people killed by police officers start with a wellness or mental health call.
In his career, Bratton has also been a proponent of broken windows policing. On your website, you take a different approach. You write: “We will not deter serious and violent crime through arrests for petty offenses.” Where do you think his vision falls short?
I grew up being stopped and harassed under a broken windows theory. And I can tell you, it alienated me and others like me who you might need later as a witness to something. You’re undermining community trust and the pursuit of public safety because you’re alienating the very people you will be relying on. That’s the first big issue.
Second, we need to separate out the responses. I grew up in a neighborhood that was underinvested in. So yes, fix the window, that’s great. But that is different from “incarcerate.”
I’ll give you an example. The NYPD decided to enforce untaxed cigarette sales, and they went street corner to street corner at great detriment to community trust, with the example of Eric Garner, he was breaking up a fight and ended up losing his life. We tax cigarettes for a reason, we want to deter smoking. But how can we do this effectively, and in a way that does not come at a great cost the way the NYPD is doing it? When I was at the attorney general’s offices we sued Federal Express and UPS—they were shipping thousands of untaxed cigarettes—and got back $100 million in tax revenue. We addressed an issue without incarceration, and without the costs to human dignity and community trust. So just thinking about how we can use the different levers of government to address issues in a non-carceral way, and I would submit a more impactful way.
To your point about responses, there are many differences in the paths available to prosecutors that stop short of incarceration. On your website, you say: “Any person charged with a misdemeanor that will not be dismissed outright will be offered diversion if it is legally possible.” Can you walk me through the choices involved here? When would you keep people out of the criminal legal system altogether, and when would you use your office’s prosecutorial power to push them toward diversion programs?
The policy on the website breaks up those components, what we will decline versus what we will divert. Our declination policies are things that just don’t don’t affect public safety, that we would outright not prosecute. Trespass, arising out of my experiences having loved ones arrested repeatedly for visiting friends in public housing. Driving with a suspended license, arising from fines and fees. Resisting arrest as a stand-alone offense—you see that used as a pretextual charge: What was the arrest you were resisting?
But there are other matters we will divert. Most are going to be drug possession and petty larceny. There are some charges, which are not eligible for a desk appearance ticket (domestic violence, sex offenses, DWI), and those would not be by law eligible for the kind of diversion we’re talking about.
Let’s pause on drug possession. Your policy, as you noted, is that you would steer those cases toward these diversion programs, which may condition avoidance of a criminal record on fulfilling certain steps. Some of your opponents say they would outright decline to prosecute drug possession. Can you speak about that contrast? Why do you prefer pursuing such cases rather than declining them, even if through diversion? One critique of diversion options has been that it can be counterproductive to force people into treatment programs in a manner that’s effective.
My father struggled with sobriety, and I’ve been to rehabilitation facilities to visit him, so I approach this as a public health issue. But I do think that offering diversion for treatment is what we should be doing, mindful of the limits and doing it in a much more flexible way.
In our plan of how to do it, we talk about doing adjournments so that it’s not the court schedule driving a program but the reverse. We talk about the limits of the drug courts. I certainly understand we can’t have what happens now, by and large, where someone doesn’t complete a program and then has the book thrown at him.
To the extent you would condition not pursuing a conviction on certain steps, would it be something like entry into a program, or else a higher threshold like completing it?
I think it’s good faith participation. I think this is very case specific, and to be guided by medical professionals. So having a path that doesn’t have the court schedule or the prosecutor dictating, but listening to professionals.
Criminalization is also at issue with homelessness. Charges like trespassing are often used to arrest and prosecute homeless people. Do you think the criminal legal system has any role to play when it comes to how the city responds to homelessness? If so, what is it, and if not, what should replace this?
This is first and foremost a human dignity issue, it’s first and foremost an issue about shelter. That is the primary solution, and that should come from City Hall and from a different part of government that is not the criminal system. Now we are using Rikers as a conduit for housing, supportive services, and health services. With that said, as DA I’d be helping to drive that conversation by saying this is not a policing, public safety issue, this is a housing, shelter, mental health issue.
More broadly, so much of what the NYPD and the Manhattan DA’s office are engaged in involves lower-level offenses. The New York Times pointed out that “nearly 80 percent of the cases prosecuted there in 2019 were misdemeanors.” To what extent would the declination policies you describe shrink the overall footprint or volume of cases the office is prosecuting?
I expect the overall volume to decrease. If we look at the docket, much of that has little to do with public safety. We shift away from things that don’t have anything to do with public safety, and we address racial disparities in the system. Certainly I have talked about focusing prosecutorial resources on things like gun trafficking, violent sex offenses. But I think on balance we’re still talking about a very significant trend.
Would you support a reduction of the budget that the DA office gets in light of what you’re saying is a decrease in volume of cases?
There’s too much to do for public safety for me to make that commitment. We obviously have what may be the most consequential prosecution in local history. We’ve also done harassment cases, labor wage cases, and I know what it takes to build them. I know how time intensive and resource intensive it could be. There really is work to do making the criminal law work for those who have been marginalized.
I’d like to return to my initial question, which was asking you about homicides. When it comes to homicides and other higher-level crimes, what do you think should change to prevent violence before cases make it to your office? What do you think of DA [Cyrus] Vance’s tenure on this front?
I’m very concerned about the gun violence I’m seeing. I know about this personally. I’ve had a semi automatic weapon pointed to my head, and I’ve also looked into the eyes of a loved one shortly after his best friend was gunned down and killed in front of him. We need to be doing more. When I was at the attorney general’s office, we built a portal showing the path of guns coming in: Every single gun in a crime scene, we traced it back to its last lawful sale. We also need to scale up our reliance on community intervention groups, community interrupters, folks who are going to hospitals, folks who are stopping retaliation. We also need to bring cases where someone is shooting and doing harm. It’s an all-of-the-above approach.
You have said you oppose sentences of life without parole, but many people are serving other very lengthy sentences that are virtual life sentences, with large obstacles to their eligibility for parole and their ability to obtain it. There are debates right now in New York on expanding parole for elderly people. How would you address these issues regarding parole and life?
I support those measures in the legislature. I think our parole system is certainly not operating the way it should be. But it’s being an active leader, not just supporting legislation, but using the role as a DA to say we’re going to join with these applications, certainly not going to oppose them. I think that would be a real sea change: Right now, the DA writes a template letter opposing parole. We’re gonna do the reverse.
The association of New York prosecutors, DAASNY, has been central to the pushback against reform that we’ve discussed, but you have said you would stay in DAASNY. Why is that?
For far too long, people who look like me have been kicked out of rooms, and so I’m not going to self-segregate myself. I’m going to be in the room, and I’m going to be heard, and I’m going to voice opposition. I believe strongly in robust dialogue and exchange of ideas, and if my voice is not to carry the day—and I’m not naive, I’m not suggesting I’ll carry the day all the time—then I’ll speak out as I have.
There are few DAs in New York whose politics are aligned with reform goals. Do you think there is such a bloc, and if not, how would you wield internal influence within DAASNY?
I don’t know that we have that bloc in New York State. But I have had conversations about a regional association with other local prosecutors up and down the East Coast with whom I feel some kind of common interest in views.
Some of your opponents have not worked as prosecutors, and they say it is important for the next DA to be an outsider to the prevailing practices of prosecution. How do you respond to that?
Much of what other candidates are talking about wanting to do, I’ve done. Harassment, wage and hourly work, police accountability, I’ve worked in that space. What I think is the most important in terms of reform is, where is it coming from? This is my life’s work. No other candidate has lived every day dealing with the system from many perspectives: I have been stopped at gunpoint by the NYPD, my 11-year-old son is concerned about wearing a face mask lest he be confused by the NYPD as a robber, my brother-in-law lived with me for a year plus after he was incarcerated. People can study and know about re-entry, but when you got someone on your couch, looking for work, that’s different.