The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York district attorney toughens prosecution policy that drew outrage

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks on election night last November. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

NEW YORK — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) has undone a controversial policy that would have made it a misdemeanor to rob a business with a gun in some cases. He also made other tweaks to his operating manual, after weeks of backlash from critics who said leniency would amplify the rise in violence plaguing the city.

The revised manual, distributed to roughly 500 prosecutors in a one-page letter Friday, gave them discretion to make case decisions outside of the left-leaning blueprint he announced at the start of his term. It is unclear whether that decision-making authority also applies to bail decisions. Bragg’s Jan. 3 memo appeared to bar prosecutors from seeking bail in gun-possession cases and certain other bail-eligible felonies.

Bragg has apologized for what he said is “confusion” over the new rules. He said they required “clarification” and explained that cases will be evaluated individually.

New York District Attorney wants to stop prosecuting some offenses

The new letter said Bragg is committing to prosecuting gun offenses at a time when shootings and homicides in the city are the highest they’ve been in years. Police officers Jason Rivera, 22, and Wilbert Mora, 27, were fatally shot responding to a domestic dispute in Harlem on Jan. 21. Two days earlier, an infant was shot in the face in the Bronx. At Rivera’s funeral last week at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was attended by thousands of people, his widow accused Bragg of making the streets more dangerous.

“People walking the streets with guns will be prosecuted and held accountable,” Bragg wrote in the letter. “The default in gun cases is a felony prosecution. We also will use gun possession cases as an opportunity to trace the sources of illegal guns and build cases against gun traffickers.”

It is unclear from Bragg’s new mandate whether assistant district attorneys can also use their discretion to ask judges for bail to hold alleged gun offenders in custody while their cases are pending. The letter does not discuss bail.

Bragg’s “Day One” bail agenda went further than the dramatic changes the New York legislature imposed at the start of 2020. Those changes eliminated the option for judges to set bail in most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

It was a part of a 10-page memo that also curtailed the ability of his staff to prosecute charges like resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration, which are often levied against protesters and in police confrontations with civilians. In the new release, Bragg said his office would “prosecute any person who harms or attempts to harm a police officer.”

President Biden and Mayor Adams in the volatile politics of policing

The Jan. 3 memo drew harsh criticism from Mayor Eric Adams (D) and New York Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell. The new manual distributed to prosecutors Friday does not directly reverse the majority of the first memo’s procedures, except for one that sought to downgrade commercial robberies to petit larceny “if the force or threat of force consists of displaying a dangerous instrument or similar behavior but does not create a genuine risk of physical harm.”

Bragg’s latest decree says commercial robberies will now be treated as felonies “whether or not the gun is operable, loaded, or a realistic imitation.” Holdups at businesses “at knifepoint, or by any other weapon that creates a risk of physical harm” will trigger a felony case.

The new manual did not address several other aspects of the first memo, including orders to prosecutors to downgrade residential burglaries in areas “not accessible to a living space” and severe limits on what charges can be brought against drug dealers considered low-level.

Bragg, who beat his Republican opponent in a landslide last fall, has painted his rules as a framework for his vision of the office, which can be modified if circumstances call for other considerations.

He succeeded Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D), who did not seek reelection after serving three terms in office, and who also made controversial changes in prosecutions, such as declining to pursue cases involving turnstile jumping or marijuana offenses.

Bragg, a former federal prosecutor and official in the New York Attorney General’s office, positioned himself to be the most progressive district attorney ever to sit in Manhattan, aligning himself with prosecutors who have been elected on similar promises in other big cities.

The progressive prosecution movement is based on the idea that by charging fewer crimes and reducing the jail and prison populations, the government can promote alternatives to incarceration programs and safety in cities will follow.