- Interview by
- Sam Mellins
With a budget of $124 million in 2020, and a staff of over a thousand, the Manhattan District Attorney (DA) is an immensely powerful office. The DA plays a large part in determining how these resources are allocated, and what types of crime are prioritized, or deprioritized. Incumbent Cy Vance has been heavily criticized in past years for overly punitive policies toward minor drug crime and “quality-of-life” offenses such as bus fare evasion, while letting powerful actors such as the Trump family and Jeffrey Epstein off the hook.
Janos Marton wants to change all that. Marton, a civil rights attorney, leading NYC anti-prison activist, and Democratic Socialists of America member, is running for Manhattan DA in 2021. He has so far released nine detailed proposals that read like a socialist and progressive wish list for criminal justice, including decarcerating Manhattan by 80 percent, eliminating solitary confinement, and combatting wage theft, among other initiatives.
But Marton will have stiff competition. Cy Vance, first elected in 2009, is unlikely to run for reelection next year. Instead, a crowded field of nine candidates in the June 2021 Democratic primary has emerged, including former prosecutors, public defenders, and other civil rights lawyers.
Marton is a DSA member, but DSA is staying out of the district attorney race. Marton, civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi (also a DSA member), and public defender Eliza Orlins (not a member) applied for the endorsement of DSA’s two Manhattan branches. But none of the candidates were successful in winning a 60 percent majority of the branch, the threshold for endorsement.
The non-endorsements were not necessarily a reflection of opposition to the candidates’ platforms. Concerns about group capacity were the primary reasons voiced by those opposed to endorsing. The Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch of the group had already endorsed a 2021 city council candidate, Adolfo Abreu, and is expecting to devote most of its electoral energy in the coming months to that race. And the electorate in the borough-wide district attorney race is nearly ten times the size of a neighborhood-based city council election — a heavy lift even for the highly committed members of NYC-DSA.
Most of the candidates in the race are running on progressive platforms, and public defenders and criminal justice advocates are quick to point out that either of the DSA-member candidates would be an improvement on the present status quo. But some argue that Aboushi’s platform does not go far enough in the decriminalization of low-level offenses, particularly in terms of drug possession and sex work.
After Aboushi published a widely–criticized diversion policy that did not pledge to fully decriminalize drug possession or sex work, both Marton and Orlins reaffirmed their commitments to fully decriminalizing both categories.
Sam Mellins spoke to Marton about his plans for taking on the carceral state, using the DA’s office to protect the economic rights of workers and tenants, and how to spot a serious reformer in a crowded field.
The Manhattan DA’s office is a massively powerful position. What would you say that incumbent Cy Vance has been using the power of the office to do, and what would you like to see the office used for instead?
Fundamentally, the office has been extremely punitive when it comes to prosecuting low-income communities of color, and pretty weak when it comes to prosecuting the rich and powerful. What’s most disappointing about that is that we’re in Manhattan, one of the richest places in the country, with such a strong infrastructure for helping people and supporting people. The Manhattan DA’s office should be leading the country in coming up with solutions for breaking the cycle of harm that don’t involve jail and prison.
We should be the most innovative office when it comes to alternative programs and things that actually help people with mental health issues, substance abuse issues, or who just wind up committing crimes out of economic desperation, given the incredible wealth of this borough. Cy Vance has not been a leader on any of those things, even compared to some of his New York City colleagues, let alone nationally.
Can you speak a little bit about your professional and personal experiences that led you to run for Manhattan DA? You’ve previously talked about living under stop-and-frisk as a person of color. How have things like that and your anti-prison work influenced your decision to run?
This is a personal and professional journey for me. As a teenager growing up in New York City under Rudy Giuliani, I was subjected to stop and frisk, I was arrested, I was jailed. And while I was fortunate to never experience any serious jail or prison time because of it, those experiences are part of what made me become an activist, and an organizer, and eventually go to law school.
While I was in law school, I started a program working with young people on Rikers Island, which brought me there every Sunday. The sixteen and seventeen year olds had virtually no programming on the weekends at that time, around 2009.
We brought law students out there to do workshops on everything from current events, debate, mock trial, the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. It was always a deeply educational two-way street, because we would teach the young people about how the law works in theory, and they would in turn teach us about how the law works in practice.
What about your professional work, against Rikers, against prisons? How has that led you to this moment?
Those early experiences really taught me how rotten the system is. Earlier in my career I was able to work on addressing police misconduct at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, suing the NYPD for its illegal behavior. But I had not yet participated in the kind of systemic change I was hoping for until I got the opportunity to manage the campaign to close Rikers in 2016.
That was an incredible experience, working with formerly incarcerated and other directly impacted people on changing New Yorkers’ perception of what Rikers Island is, who is in our jail system, and what justice should really look like in New York.
Over the two years that I ran the campaign, we marched, we organized, we fought for legislation in Albany, we pressured [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio, and by the end of that time, we had moved the idea of closing Rikers from being what was described as a naive and idealistic “pipe dream” to where it’s now the position of virtually every elected official in New York City that Rikers needs to close — the debate is now over how fast and what replaces it.
Speaking about incarceration in New York City, the first policy paper that your campaign released was on your proposal to decarcerate Manhattan by 80 percent. You point out in the plan that right now, Manhattan has the highest jail population of any borough, despite the fact that it is far less populous than Brooklyn or Queens. Why is that? And what would decarcerating by 80 percent look like?
The main two reasons that the numbers are higher in Manhattan is that Cy Vance’s office is more punitive when it comes to seeking pre-trial detention for low-level offenses, and that his office is less interested in using specialty courts and diversion programs that can keep people out of the criminal court system.
The reason that our first policy paper was about decarceration, and specifically gave an 80 percent number, is that during my work at the ACLU in holding DAs accountable across the country, we found that without a percentage based commitment to decarceration, you can’t really tell which so-called progressive prosecutors are really committed to those priorities, and which ones are using buzzwords because they know it will help them get elected in Democratic primaries.
Having a percentage-based commitment is something you can actually hold me accountable to. If I’m not in the process of cutting the jail population by 80 percent, I hope to be called out for that. And likewise, if a candidate running in this Manhattan DA race is not giving a percentage-based commitment, how do you know that they’re going to follow through on any of these promises? So I think it’s essential to come up with a percentage-based commitment.
Now in terms of how we fulfill them, it’s by ending cash bail so that nobody winds up on Rikers because they don’t have enough money to get out of jail.
Right now that’s the majority of people on Rikers, right?
Yes. People who can’t afford bail are always the majority in most jails across the country. So if we end cash bail, we would only have people left pre-trial who represent a serious risk of flight or harm to another person.
Number two, building strong mental health programs and diverting people with mental health issues from the criminal justice system, and number three, end the use of jail for petty crimes. Instead of sending someone to Rikers for a week for jumping a turnstile, we’d seek non-carceral solutions. The biggest one is bail. [As of October 2020, 75.5 percent of New York City’s incarcerated population had not been convicted of a crime.]
You, along with several other candidates in the race, have pledged to end prosecutions for drug possession, of all drugs and in all amounts. What’s the importance of a blanket commitment to end prosecutions for possession, versus a “presumption” that possession will not be prosecuted, or a policy of diversion to treatment rather than incarceration, as other candidates have called for?
We put out a platform to end the War on Drugs in January of this year. It led with the fact that we’re not going to criminally prosecute drug possession of any type of substance. We were the first campaign to do that anywhere in the country, including in this race. And that’s because the War on Drugs has been an issue that I’ve cared about for twenty years. I know that it tears communities apart, and is a complete waste of money, and breaks trust between law enforcement and the community.
Also, the word “presumption” does a lot of heavy lifting for people. The problem is, when you are a DA, you are going to have hundreds of assistant district attorneys operating in your name. That gives a lot of leeway to supervisors, to bureau heads, to individual line prosecutors to interpret that as they will.
When you’re talking about trying to reverse a culture that is known for being punitive, you need to have bright line rules, or else you’re going to have people interpreting them in all kinds of different ways.
When people say “presumption,” well, what are the exceptions to the presumption? When I see somebody saying that there’s a presumption that X will happen, it’s a very slippery slope before we get right back to the failed policies that we have now.
What would you say is the culture of the DA’s office right now, and how could you change it into something that aligns more with your vision? I’d imagine that many current employees are longtime prosecutors who would be opposed to your vision for the DA.
To change the culture of a place like the Manhattan DA’s office requires swift and deliberate action upon being sworn in in January 2022. That means coming in with a leadership team of fifteen to twenty people who I’ll have been collaborating with in the period between the June primary and January.
We can’t fire everybody, but we do need to replace every single department and bureau head, and then have the people that we bring in quickly shape the culture of their own bureaus and departments.
That means probably a lot of mid-level supervisors need to go. From everything I’m hearing, that’s where the biggest obstacles to reform are right now at the Manhattan DA’s office: supervisors who create obstacles to people getting help through alternatives to incarceration, or who resist dropping bad cases when junior prosecutors say that there’s not a lot of evidence.
That’s how we’re going to shape the office from the top. We also want to shape the office from the bottom up. That means recruiting completely different assistant district attorneys. Instead of bringing in some Harvard Law grad who’s never set foot in New York City and just wants a notch on his belt for his professional career, we’re going to look for people who are from New York City or similarly situated neighborhoods, who really understand the struggles of the people that are going to be in front of them in the courtroom, and who have a commitment to a different vision for criminal justice.
So that’s the transition in terms of staff. Can you describe the transition in terms of values that you’re looking for these changes to effect?
Instead of using metrics like conviction rates, and how many felonies you can secure, and how tough you can be on defendants, we’re going to look at how you are breaking the cycle of harm. I’ve sat down across the table from Cy Vance, and I remember once during the Close Rikers campaign, we were trying to persuade Vance to stop sending people to Rikers for misdemeanors. He said, “You’ve got to understand. The kind of people we send to Rikers for misdemeanors, this is their fifth or sixth time back in court for the same thing. What else are we supposed to do?”
To me, that’s the fundamental difference in philosophy between me and Cy Vance. If I see somebody showing up in criminal court for the same thing, for the fifth or sixth time, then obviously what we were doing before is not working, and we need to try something different.
What I would be looking for in my assistant district attorneys is for them to be solutions-oriented in figuring out the root cause of why this person keeps showing up in criminal court. What is the underlying issue that they’re dealing with, and how can we fix that so that they don’t show up in court for the seventh or eighth time?
What you’re saying about breaking the cycle of harm makes me think about something else in your platform, which is centering mental health in criminal justice.
One of the things I think is particularly interesting is that you’ve called for funding mental health programs with asset forfeiture funds. Can you talk about what these funds are and where they come from, and how you would use them to build up a mental health infrastructure?
We’ve called for funding community-based health programs to the tune of about $50 million a year. That means money going to organizations that work in the community — not court-based or government-based programs out of big office buildings, but organizations that are able to connect directly with people and build trust.
The money would come from financial forfeiture funds, which are essentially a portion of fines levied against banks and other financial institutions for breaking the law. Because of Manhattan’s jurisdiction, it receives significant funds from those types of cases in a way that, for example, the Queens DA’s office does not.
People should understand that this is different from civil asset forfeiture, which I find deeply disturbing. That’s if you’re accused of a crime, and your car is impounded, and sometimes not given back to you. That’s different from the financial asset forfeitures.
When you talk about community-based mental health programs, are these for people caught up in the criminal justice system, or victims, or anyone in general?
The goal would be for these programs to reach people on a day-to-day basis, before they touch the criminal justice system. Once somebody is in front of a judge, having committed a serious harm, our options become narrower. The earlier we can intervene in a person’s life, the better.
So community-based mental health means setting up programs that can support people in the community regardless of their contact with the criminal justice system, and hopefully creating an environment where fewer people who have mental health issues get caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.
That’s how you deliver mental health care, as opposed to waiting until somebody has a mental health crisis, gets arrested by the police, is brought to criminal court, sent to Rikers, and then at Rikers gets a diagnosis that they have mental health issues and gets placed into a specialized jail building that works with people with mental health issues.
If you’re gonna be in jail, it’s better to have professionals working with you who know how to handle mental health issues. But it’s shameful that the biggest mental health provider in New York State is Rikers Island, and you have to wait until you get to Rikers for a professional to help you.
One of your policy papers is devoted to how you would take on wage theft. What is the scale of wage theft as a problem in Manhattan, and how can the DA’s office be most effective in combating it?
There’s more money stolen in major cities across the United States, including New York, via wage theft than all other forms of stealing combined. What’s happening is that corporations, often repeat players, are extracting wealth from working people, and getting away with it.
Even when they are held accountable, which is extremely rare, the usual outcome is a fine such that wage theft can be baked in as a cost of doing business. The only way to change that is to actually go after these employers and hold them accountable.
There are certain industries that are notorious for it: the service industry, the construction industry. The construction industry is probably the only one that does have attention on it surrounding wage theft, because organized labor is there to call it out. When you have strong unions, they can signal where nonunion workers are being exploited.
There are other industries, like service, where you don’t really have people raising these issues. So we might say that in our first year in office, we’re going to target the service industry, we’re going to solicit stories from people affected by wage theft, we’re going to support whistleblowers coming forward, and we may start hearing that there are certain bad actors who come up over and over again. If we can parlay that into a formal investigation, we’re off and running.
If through investigating certain companies, we can deter bad behavior in others, then that’s great. Ideally we wouldn’t prosecute a whole bunch of people; we’d rather companies just follow the law and pay workers what they’re owed.
It seems that you’re positioning yourself in line with the relatively new “progressive prosecutor” movement. Do you see yourself in that trajectory? And what do you think have been the biggest successes of progressive prosecutors so far, and where would you like to see improvement?
I’m a strong believer in the progressive prosecutor movement. I think people should understand it as seeking the most progressive DA possible for a particular jurisdiction.
When we had an election for DA in Dallas [in 2019], the work that the movement did there in electing John Creuzot, who committed to 25 percent decarceration in his first term — that’s not revolutionary stuff, but it’s pretty good for Dallas. I think that’s how we should look at the progressive prosecutor movement.
[Chicago DA] Kim Foxx was a huge upgrade over her predecessor, [Philadelphia DA] Larry Krasner was a huge upgrade over his predecessor. I’m more radical than they are, but that makes sense, because this is New York City. We should be electing somebody who is cutting edge, who can take advantage of New York City’s vast resources to keep people out of jail and prison, and who can work with the significant infrastructure we have here to support people.
One area where I would go further than anyone else, I think, is acknowledging that the DA’s office needs to be shrunk as part of shrinking the footprint of mass incarceration. I’m the only candidate so far who has called for reducing the size of the office and the budget of the office.
That’s because if we’re doing our jobs right, we are going to be pushing people to get the support that they need in the community. We’re not going to get rid of police, prisons, and prosecutors overnight, but if that is the direction we’re going, we should be talking about reducing the DA budget just like we’re talking about reducing the police budget.