The day the New York City Democrats select the candidate who is likely to become the next mayor, the Manhattanites will effectively elect their next district attorney. It is the kind of race that will have far more seismic effects on the city and nation than the attention it has been given would indicate. The winner will set an agenda for criminal justice that will inevitably reach prosecutors across the country.
Part of it has to do with the size of the office: outgoing prosecutor Cyrus Vance Jr. presides over 500 prosecutors and has a budget of nearly $ 170 million. Manhattan is the beating heart of the real estate industry, Wall Street and the corporate crime that hit the headlines. Vance has crossed with the likes of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Regular watchers of law and order and other police procedures have a different version of the office: a tough but fair institution that grapples with a procession of criminals who have to imprison hardened, if well-intentioned prosecutors and police officers.
But a darker reality pulsates below – the office under Vance and his predecessors has been overly punitive and even predatory, according to legal watchers and public defenders who have fought against it daily. It’s a place, they say, where the ongoing reforms that have captured office across the country have been grudgingly or belatedly at best recognized.
“Where do we start with how repressive, how predatory that Manhattan District Attorney’s Office was for color communities?” asked Rigodis Appling, a member of the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid and longtime public defender. “I really think they think their job is simply to protect property, and they calculate things as such. If you value property more than human life, it becomes disruptive there and you do not do justice.”