From [NYTimes] This month, it was reported that the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., chose not to prosecute Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for fraud when he had the chance in 2012. Similarly, Mr. Vance declined to bring sexual abuse charges against the now-disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2015, even though he had an audiotape of Mr. Weinstein admitting to groping the victim.
Mr. Vance’s willingness to ignore wrongdoing by powerful people is a serious issue. But his biggest failures have not been the cases he won’t prosecute, but rather the ones he does.
Mr. Vance is considered one of America’s most progressive prosecutors and has the accolades to prove it. In 2015, he helped create the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Two years earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder gave him an award for having developed a partnership between local youths and law enforcement aimed at reducing violence.
Sure, he often says the right thing, as when he told New York Law School’s graduating class in 2015 that he had recognized racism in the criminal justice system “long before the term ‘mass incarceration’ entered the general conversation,” or when he wrote in the black-owned Amsterdam News last month that he has helped to reduce “unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system” among Manhattanites.
However, like many prosecutors across the country who get credit for changing the game while continuing draconian practices, Mr. Vance simply isn’t the reformer he paints himself as.
Look at the data. Manhattan holds less than 20 percent of the city’s population, but on an average day, almost 40 percent of Rikers Island inmates are from the borough. This disparity has been attributed in part to his office’s zealous prosecution of misdemeanors. As of 2015, Mr. Vance was more likely to prosecute a misdemeanor charge than any other district attorney in New York City.
And despite lamenting racism in the criminal justice system, Mr. Vance perpetuates l worrisome racial disparities. A 2014 Vera Institute of Justice study found that black and Latino defendants prosecuted by Mr. Vance’s office were more likely to be detained at booking, compared with similarly situated white defendants. And last year, 51 percent of marijuana cases involving black defendants in Manhattan ended in conviction, while only 23 percent involving whites did.
Nor is Mr. Vance the only faux reformer.
The New Orleans district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, claims that his office “has worked aggressively to reform New Orleans’s criminal justice system.” But his actions indicate that he values convictions over his community. He has locked up rape victims who refused to testify against their assailants and has served fake subpoenas to pressure witnesses to talk. Mr. Cannizzaro defended a sentence in which a 17-year-old was sent to prison for 99 years for an armed car robbery, even though no one was injured during the crime. His office tried to sentence a man to 20 years in prison for stealing $31 worth of candy.
The Los Angeles district attorney, Jackie Lacey, is a Democrat who has benefited from the public’s perception that she is a reformer. This is something she has fed herself, bragging to a Los Angeles Sentinel reporter that she has read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and has seen Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13,” about the history of systems of racial control. But Ms. Lacey’s values have consistently lagged behind those of her constituency.
In ballot initiatives, Los Angeles County residents supported shorter sentences for low-level and nonviolent property and drug crimes and wanted to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults. Ms. Lacey opposed both. And although the county voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty, she continues to support it. Last year there were just 31 death sentences nationwide. Ms. Lacey’s office secured four of them.
Philadelphia’s former district attorney R. Seth Williams was once identified as a rising political star. But it turns out he wasn’t much of a leader at all. By the end of his tenure, which was cut short after he pleaded guilty to bribery and resigned, Philadelphia had locked up more of its residents per capita than any other major city. One in four defendants was being held in jail simply because of an inability to pay bail.
Mr. Williams had also won praise for agreeing not to pursue life-without-parole sentences again for 300 juvenile offenders. The Supreme Court has ruled they were unconstitutionally sentenced to such punishments and entitled to new sentencing hearings. But less than a year later, he reneged on his promise and denied ever making it.
America incarcerates more people than any other country, and it is prosecutors who are largely responsible.
So it’s especially frustrating that many of those who are praised as change-makers are at best making bite-size improvements. And because they say the right things, the public gives them a pass: Mr. Vance is running unopposed for a third term, and Ms. Lacey also ran unopposed in her last election.
The progressive bombast is meaningless if prosecutors continue to promote the same harsh practices behind the scenes. Instead, voters must look closely at their policies and hold them to high and specific standards. We should ask: Are prosecutors opposing new mandatory minimum sentences during legislative debates? Have they declined to request cash bail in a vast majority of cases? Are they keeping children out of adult court and refusing to seek life-without-parole sentences for them?
Over 1,000 prosecutors will be up for election next year in places like Dallas, San Diego, Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C. Voters ought to make sure the people who win these crucial races are actual criminal justice reformers, not just people who say they are. [MORE]