Daniel Nichanian

New York’s legislature reformed the state’s criminal legal system in March by adopting a slate of changes that criminal justice reformers have long championed. On paper, the 25 district attorney elections scheduled for 2019 offer the opportunity for another big overhaul, including on the very issues—bail, discovery rules, trial speed—that lawmakers just addressed.

“Prosecutors have unbelievable discretion,” said Katie Schaffer, a New York organizer with JustLeadershipUSA, a group that supports reducing incarceration, “and they get to make the decisions about whether or not to prosecute something, about what charges to prosecute it under. The criminal code is really written like a menu of options for prosecutors.”

Candidates had until April 4 to file for these races as a member of one of New York’s eight recognized parties. Some of the resulting elections—for instance in Queens, Monroe, and Ulster counties—could emulate the conflicts that have shaken up other local elections in recent years as to the purpose of the criminal legal system and prosecution.

But a majority of the 25 DA elections drew only one candidate (the incumbent), robbing these counties of an opportunity to partake in these debates and host vigorous philosophical contrasts. A majority of Mississippi and Pennsylvania’s DA elections are also uncontested this year.  

Candidates can still file petitions to run as independents until May 28, however. And six of the eight largest jurisdictions with elections are hosting contested races.

The landscape is more desolate still in the sheriff elections since only three of 15 drew multiple candidates. Last week, I wrote on Rensselaer County, where the Democratic Party filed no candidate against the only New York sheriff to have joined a ICE’s prized 287(g) program.

The Political Report has identified the candidates who filed to run for prosecutor or sheriff in New York in this masterlist. What do we already know about these elections’ major stakes?

Implementing the 2019 reforms, and beyond: New York just required prosecutors to share information with the defense within 15 days, ended cash bail for many categories of offenses, provided for speedier trials, and acted for some convictions to not trigger deportation. Those changes come into effect in January 2020. But advocates who worked to get them passed say that the DAs elected in November still face major decisions on each of those issues. For instance:

  • Discovery: Schaffer urged DAs to go further than the new rules. “The legislation does require prosecutors to turn over evidence within 15 days of arraignment but it is within their discretion to turn over evidence immediately,” she said.
  • Speedy trials: Erin George, a campaign director at Citizens Action New York, told me that she regretted that the new legislation did not bar prosecutors from “coercing a defendant to waive their constitutional right to a speedy trial” in exchange for a more favorable plea, but that this is a change DAs could implement in their offices.
  • Bail: Some reform advocates were disappointed that the legislation did not altogether abolish the money bail system altogether, and they have vowed to advocate for further changes. Bail decisions are made by judges, but prosecutors’ position on whether to tie pretrial incarceration to financial conditions could be decisive in shaping what’s ahead.
  • Immigration: Different prosecutorial decisions can have vastly different implications for noncitizen defendants. WHYY reported in March on strategies pursued by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office to counter such immigration ramifications. New York DAs could pursue similar approaches. For instance, numerous candidates in the Queens election pledged to take a conviction’s “collateral consequences” into account.

New York lawmakers are still debating the possibility of legalizing marijuana. Until they do, the decision of whether to prosecute marijuana-related offenses and how to deal with old convictions is in the hands of local district attorneys. Some New York City DAs have mostly stopped such prosecutions. Will new DAs follow that model? One candidate told the Political Report that she would. “You have Albany, you have Manhattan, you have Brooklyn, you even have Buffalo,” said Shani Curry Mitchell, who is running in Monroe County. “It doesn’t make sense that Monroe County would still have a policy where we are prosecuting marijuana possession cases.”

George added that New York prosecutors’ influence on the state’s criminal legal system extends far beyond these issues. “It’s important for DA offices to not just do the bare minimum that the law says they can and cannot do,” she said. “The ultimate change that will result in ending mass incarceration is an overall culture shift in what we see as the solution to violence, trauma and harm in communities, and moving away from punitive, retributive practices, and DAs have the power to commit to begin the shift of culture in their own offices.”

Will DAASNY still represent all prosecutors? The statewide group through which prosecutors wield influence in Albany, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY), resisted the proposed reforms this year. Last year, they filed a lawsuit against a new law creating a commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. But DAASNY enjoys the legitimacy of a professional organization, one that all DAs are part of. Will that change after the 2019 elections, as it did in Pennsylvania last year? Two of the candidates running for prosecutor in Queens, former public defender Tiffany Cabán and city council member Rory Lancman, have said that they would not join the association if elected.

DAASNY’s next president faces a challenger: Sandra Doorley, the Republican DA of Monroe County (Rochester) and president-elect of DAASNY, is up for re-election this year. She will face former prosecutor Shani Curry Mitchell, a Democrat, in November. Doorley spoke against proposed bail and marijuana reforms earlier this year, while Mitchell told the Political Report in a February interview that she supported them, and outlined other reforms she would implement such as not prosecuting marijuana possession.

A former DAASNY president drew no challenger, however. Oneida County’s Scott McNamara, who is a Democrat, spoke against the state’s legislative reforms this year, and argued that his county does not need bail reform or decarceration. He is running unopposed. Also running unopposed are the DAs of the Bronx and Staten Island, two of the three New York City boroughs with elections this year. The Appeal has reported on Bronx DA Darcel Clark’s resistance to reform proposals, most recently in March when Raven Rakia reported that she, unlike her Manhattan and Brooklyn colleagues, was not supporting a pilot program of supervised injection sites.

Queens, the marquee election: Queens, home to more than two million people, is the biggest jurisdiction holding a DA election anywhere in the country this year. Richard Brown’s decision to retire after 28 years in office has triggered a seven-person Democratic primary on June 25.

The election could overhaul an office that has long embraced a tough-on-crime approach. The Gotham Gazette and The Intercept have published thorough previews of this election’s stakes for reform. In the latter, Akela Lacy highlights the support that Cabán, a former public defender, has received from progressive groups like the Queens DSA and the Working Families Party. Another candidate who has pledged major reform is Lancman, a city council member, The Appeal reported in 2018. The other five candidates are Borough President Melinda Katz, retired state Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo, former Queens prosecutor Mina Malik, and former prosecutor in the office of the state attorney general Jose Nieves. The Appeal has explored these candidates’ position in the course of articles focused on the decriminalization of sex work and on the treatment of people on parole and probation.

Ulster County will have a new DA, too: Holley Carnright, the DA of Ulster County (Kingston), is not running for reelection. In launching his bid to replace him, first assistant DA Michael Kavanagh cast himself as a continuity candidate and leaned into his experience as prosecutor. A Republican, Kavanagh now faces Democrat David Clegg, a former public defender who is emphasizing a need to change local practices. Besides Queens and Ulster, three other counties are sure to have a new prosecutor next year: Broome, Hamilton, and Rockland.

The Appeal: Political Report will return to these five open elections in the months ahead. It will also watch the six counties other than Monroe where incumbents are challenged to identify contrasts on matters relevant to criminal justice reform. Those may be slow to emerge: in five of the six (Cayuga, Columbia, Dutchess, Nassau, Onondaga, and Seneca), the incumbent DA will only face an opponent in November. The seventh county, Hamilton, is the state’s smallest.

You can visit the Political Report’s broader coverage of the 2019 elections here.