Public defender Eliza Orlins still remembers one of her earliest clients. He was a Gristedes assistant manager, and had worked at that same store for 25 years. One night, as he was coming home on the subway, he was apprehended, handcuffed and thrown in prison… for taking up more than one seat on the train.
The story was just one of the several experiences that would inspire Orlins to run for Manhattan District Attorney.
“I met him the next night and got him out of jail,” said Orlins. “But for ten years, the frustration has never gone away. The heartbreak has never gone away. Because in a decade of defending mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney, and people who are jailed and bullied for as little as taking up two seats on a subway – I’ve come up against, time and time again, a system that’s designed to systematically disenfranchise people. Black and brown people, lower income folks, LGBTQIA people, sex workers – people who are not powerful.”
Last night, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club hosted an online meet-and-greet for the nine Manhattan DA candidates. The meeting took place over Zoom on Tuesday, Aug. 19. The attending candidates were Eliza Orlins; Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Murray Hill, Lenox Hill); civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushie; criminal defense attorney Liz Crotty; criminal justice reform leader Lucy Lang; Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg; decarceration activist Janos Marton; former head of Manhattan’s Construction Fraud Task Force Diana Florence; and former prosecutor Tali Farhadian Weinstein. Jim Owles President Allen Roskoff was the moderator.
The candidates, all progressive, found common ground on plenty of issues. For instance, all were in favor of decriminalizing sex work and spoke highly of State Senator Brad Hoylman’s (D-Chelsea, Midtown) “Walking While Trans” bill. Furthermore, they all answered in the affirmative when Roskoff asked if they would take the time to visit parole candidates while working as DA.
On the other hand, the candidates were split on whether they would join the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (DAASNY). While some insisted that the organization was too conservative to accommodate them, others said that they would try to use their influence to change it from the inside.
“A diversity of voices at the table makes a tremendous difference,” said Lucy Lang. “So my inclination as I sit here now is that I would join and try to bring the rest of the state along to where I think it needs to be. But I would be willing to revisit that depending on how things evolve.”
At one point, the candidates’ passions inflamed during a debate over indeterminate sentencing. The term refers to a sentence with a non-specific duration, like “five-to-ten years” or “25-to-life”. Tahanie Aboushie argued for their abolishment, claiming that indeterminate sentences are “land mines” that force prisoners to walk on eggshells so as not to extend their prison time.
Meanwhile, Liz Crotty argued that, in some situations, indeterminate sentencing can help prisoners get out of prison sooner than they otherwise would have. Rather than ban the practice entirely, she suggested employing it on a case-by-case basis. But Aboushie rebuffed her, pointing out that she had witnessed the effects of indeterminate sentencing firsthand.
“My clients have gone through this, and I’ve seen this firsthand,” said Aboushie. “This is not something I get to look at from an ivory tower, or even from a practitioner’s position. I’ve seen what this does to families on the ground, and families that have been trying to crawl out of the trenches that the prosecution system puts them in. And if we have to reorient ourselves as an office that builds people up, that gives them second chances.”
But there was one sentiment that everyone on the Zoom call shared, including Roskoff; none of them had many kind words to say about the current Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance (D). Dan Quart even remarked that any one of his competitors would be a stark improvement over the (comparatively) right-leaning incumbent.
In their view, what the office of DA needs, most of all, is new, left-wing leadership.
“We don’t want a district attorney who’s just qualified for the job, and continues to do the status quo,” said Roskoff. “We want a district attorney that people across the nation are gonna take notice of. A district attorney like the one in San Francisco or Philadelphia. We want Manhattan to be the showcase of the nation. We want a district attorney who’s going to get people out of prison, and not spend all their time locking people up. A district attorney that is not gonna pride themselves on getting along with the police department, but who prides themselves on getting along with the left in the borough.”