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New Manhattan DA wants to stop prosecuting some offenses, make prison a ‘last resort’

The new Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is pushing forward with sweeping new guidelines aimed at lowering incarceration rates by halting prosecutions of low-level offenses. (David R. Martin/AP)

Manhattan’s new district attorney is pushing forward a flurry of sweeping new guidelines aimed at lowering incarceration rates by halting prosecutions of low-level offenses, downgrading some felonies and asking prosecutors not to seek life sentences without parole.

Two days after being sworn in, Alvin Bragg shared a memo with staff Monday noting that his office will not prosecute low-level offenses like marijuana misdemeanors, refusal to pay for public transportation fare, prostitution and resisting arrest, unless given alongside a felony charge. Instead, they would be offered a community-based diversion program.

Bragg, the city’s first Black district attorney, said these changes will not only make people safer but also “free up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime,” according to the memo.

The new policies fall in line with his campaign promises and liberal approach to criminal justice focusing on incarceration alternatives like community service and restorative justice — arguing that prison and lengthier sentences have proved ineffective and produce collateral social harms that further perpetuate crime.

“Bragg is saying there are other ways of punishing people, seeking justice and deterring people from committing crimes other than incarceration and he is focusing on nonviolent and nonserious offenses,” said Bennett Capers, a law professor at Fordham University.

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Capers said Bragg’s “bold” initiatives follow in the steps of other liberal prosecutors around the country — such as Kim Foxx in Chicago, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia — who have pushed for reduced prison sentences and highlighted racial biases in the criminal justice system, condemning the nation’s mass incarceration rates. The United States incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other country for which data is available, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the memo, Bragg recounted growing up in Harlem in the 1980s, where he witnessed violent crime: He had a gun pointed at him six times before he was 21, including three times by the police, and dealt with a loved one struggling with life after incarceration, all of which gave him a deeper understanding of the criminal justice system from a young age.

“Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer,” he wrote.

Vincent M. Southerland, an assistant professor at New York University School of Law, described the policies as a “dramatic departure” from past administrations that leaned on “tough-on-crime, overly punitive policies,” which he said “helped to grow the prison and jail population exponentially.”

Southerland echoed Bragg’s argument that these policies have often led to social problems like unemployment, educational setbacks, loss of housing and mental health issues that ultimately “undermine public safety and community stability.”

Experts like Southerland anticipated the policies will likely prompt some resistance from police and the public at a time when the city has seen a rise in crime.

Soon after the announcement, Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, which represents approximately 24,000 sworn police members, rebuked the changes and raised alarms about its potential to encourage more criminals.

“Police officers don’t want to be sent out to enforce laws that the district attorneys won’t prosecute,” Lynch said in a written statement. “And there are already too many people who believe that they can commit crimes, resist arrest, interfere with police officers and face zero consequences.”

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While Bragg has discretionary authority to implement the new policies, he said he looked forward to holding “discussions” and working with the union and other parties in the following weeks.

“While my commitment to making incarceration a matter of last resort is immutable, the path to get there through these policies will be dynamic, and not static, and will be informed by our discussions and our work with trial lawyers, law enforcement and others in the weeks and months ahead,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Tina Luongo, chief defender at the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, welcomed the directives as “substantive” first steps to reform the district attorney’s office, but warned true change will come only if these “become standard operating procedure” across the agency.

“We urge judges to not stand in the way of these long overdue and necessary reforms,” she said.

Bragg also said his office would only seek pretrial detention in certain cases, including murder or homicide, certain violent felony offenses, sex offenses, domestic violence felonies or public corruption cases. He pointed to overcrowded Rikers Island, ridden by dysfunction and violence, as evidence to support his aim to reserve pretrial detention for very serious cases only.

He added his assistant district attorneys would seek no more than a maximum of 20 years in prison for most crimes, except for extraordinary circumstances, and would never ask for a life sentence without parole.

Overall, Bragg instructed prosecutors to consider the impacts of incarceration on public safety, communities and the financial costs, as well as the “racially disparate use of incarceration.”

The memo also outlined several circumstances in which charges should be downgraded. For instance, prosecutors will have discretion to charge people for petit larceny instead of robbery when someone steals property from a commercial setting but did not pose a “genuine risk of harm.”

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Alana Sivin, a former public defender and longtime advocate for legal reform, argued on Twitter that the new guidelines will allow prosecutors to focus on “real robberies, not a harmless person who walked into a store to steal underwear with a hand in his pocket.”

Sivin, who ran for state Senate, argued the policy still allows authorities to charge people with possession of a firearm, but “gives discretion to prosecutors to decide whether someone committed a real robbery versus a petit larceny that’s being upcharged,” referring to a common practice that she says commonly affects marginalized people of color.

“I have seen so many people spend years in prison for stealing maybe $25 worth of items, simply because a store clerk said they saw them point to their pocket,” she wrote. “So many lives will be changed for the better through the policy.”

According to the Gothamist, New York Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer who has vowed to crack down on crime, praised Bragg’s “vision” Tuesday, but stopped short of further commenting on the new policies.

“I have not looked over and analyzed exactly what he’s calling for,” he said when asked about the changes at a news conference Tuesday.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.