One of the nation’s senior urban prosecutors is set to retire, the New York Times reports. When Richard Brown took over as the district attorney in Queens in the early 1990s, murder and violent crime had reached a record high in New York City. Like most prosecutors in that era, Brown adopted a tough-on-crime approach on everyone from squeegee men to drug kingpins. Brown said he would not seek re-election in the fall after 27 years in office, setting the stage for the first competitive primary for Queens district attorney in decades. His decision raised the likelihood that the diverse and changing borough might elect a liberal prosecutor with a reform agenda, which would mark a sea change in local law enforcement. At least five Democrats are expected to run.
The days of high crime when Brown took office are long gone. The murder rate has fallen to its lowest level since the 1950s, and prosecutors are rethinking their roles in a system where success once hinged on the number of convictions their offices amassed. The conversation among urban liberals has turned to avoiding wrongful convictions and ending hard-nosed policies — like targeting minor offenses as a means to reducing major crimes — that critics have argued led to the incarceration of too many black and Hispanic men. Other New York City district attorneys have scaled back the prosecution of marijuana offenses and fare evasion, established conviction review units and have stopped asking for bail in minor cases. Brown, critics say, has not kept pace. Brown said he was bowing out because his health is declining. Brown, 86, moves slowly, shakes with Parkinson’s disease and relies on his police detail for help with small tasks.