Robert Morgenthau, now 97 and still practicing law, was the district attorney for Manhattan from 1975 until he retired in 2009, during which time crime in New York was completely transformed. There were 648 murders in Manhattan the year he took office. When he left, there were 58, the New York Times reports. Rapes, assaults, robberies and property crimes similarly fell sharply. Streets, parks, and whole neighborhoods were reinvented. People who were dedicated to killing one another found other ways to settle their disputes.
“My theory was prompt and certain arrest, prosecution and punishment,” he says. “If you commit a crime, the chances of you being arrested were pretty good. And you’d be prosecuted promptly. I didn’t believe in long sentences. Crime came down all over, but it came down much more in Manhattan than any other place in the city or state…” Ronald Kuby, a defense lawyer who often went up against his prosecutors, says Morgenthau’s “tenure almost precisely tracked the era of mass incarceration. He was the dean and he could have used his moral authority to change that trajectory, and he was silent. He was an active contributor to mass incarceration.” Morgenthau disputes that, saying he avoided seeking long sentences for offenders and that he instructed his staff not to prosecute people arrested on first-time marijuana charges. He defended the strategy of prosecuting low-level offenders like fare-beaters because killers or rapists tended to commit lesser crimes as well.