New district attorneys would be required to join incarcerated students in a collaborative course in justice reform aimed at developing an awareness of “cultural humility,” under a plan proposed by one of the contenders for the Manhattan DA’s office.
The proposal by Lucy Lang, a former Assistant DA, is one of a battery of tradition-busting policies advanced by candidates in a race that is likely to make Manhattan the newest and most high-profile addition to the list of “progressive” prosecutor offices around the country.
Nearly all of the nine candidates for the June 2021 Democratic primary have promised reforms that would overhaul sentencing strategies, rethink the office’s relationship with the police, and eliminate “implicit racial bias,” in a competition that observers say would push one of the nation’s biggest prosecutorial machines further to the left than under its current leader, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.
Although the primary is still six months away, the DA race in Manhattan is already commanding national attention.
The Manhattan DA’s office is expected to be the focus of stepped-up criminal inquiries into President Donald Trump once he leaves the White House. Vance is leading investigations related to alleged tax fraud committed by the president before the 2016 election and lawsuits involving women who claim he sexually assaulted them.
Vance, first elected in 2009, has not yet said whether he will run for a fourth four-year term. But Lang’s entry into the primary competition in August was seen as a signal of his intention to move on, since she is considered one of his close allies.
Vance ran unopposed in the last election. And in the strongly Democratic Manhattan electorate, the winner of the primary is expected to occupy the post.
Lang left her job as one of Vance’s cohort of Assistant DAs in 2018 to run the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College, which was funded with a three-year $3 million grant by the Manhattan prosecutor’s office, allocated from settlements with international banks that violated U.S. sanctions.
She resigned as executive director of IIP when she announced her candidacy last summer.
At the IIP, Lang continued the “Inside Criminal Justice” course for incarcerees and legal staff she launched when she was still working for Vance as part of a nationwide effort to encourage prosecutorial reform.
The six-week courses, held in prison facilities, are intended to help prosecutors and other players in the justice system step outside their traditional roles, and provide a perspective that will help them understand the impact of their decisions, as well as jointly develop ideas for improving the justice system.
“By breaking down the barriers between prosecutors and those impacted by the decisions they make—from victims, to incarcerated people, their families and communities—we can bring about the systemic change that New Yorkers are calling for,” Lang said in a statement announcing the proposal.
The courses are part of an approach, gaining traction around the country, that incorporates the principles of procedural justice and “trauma-informed prosecution” into the work of DAs.
In trauma-informed prosecutions, DAs are asked to be wary of exacerbating the emotional harms experienced by crime victims, as well as take into consideration the psychological impact that traumatic events such as earlier crime victimization or family abuse may have had on those charged with crimes.
Lang argues that developing “cultural humility” should be an essential part of the training of young DAs who are otherwise primed by their education, background and social influences to pursue convictions and tough punishment in order to advance their careers.
“Manhattan attracts well-educated and motivated applicants from across the country,” Lang said. “When new Assistant District Attorneys start work at the office, they must be trained on the realities of the cultures and communities that reside in [New York] City, and [they] must not make assumptions based on different backgrounds.”
The other contenders for Manhattan DA are: Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney; Alvin Bragg, former state chief deputy attorney general; Liz Crotty, a defense attorney; Tali Farhadian Weinstein, former general counsel to Brooklyn N.Y. District Attorney Eric Gonzalez; Diana Florence, a former Manhattan assistant DA; Janos Martin , a civil rights attorney; Eliza Orlins, a public defender; and New York State Assembly member Dan Quart.
“Almost every one of the candidates would represent historic change for what may be the country’s most powerful local prosecutor’s office, which has only ever been led by white men,” according to City&StateNY.com.
Editor’s Note: The Center for Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, has collaborated in several programs with the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, one of its “sister” centers of research and practice at John Jay College. Neither the CMCJ nor The Crime Report endorse any of the candidates for the New York DA race.