Advocates who have fought for decades for criminal justice reform rightly see this moment as one when the stars are aligned for change. At the state level, the fiscal crisis has governors and legislators looking for alternatives to spending $50 billion a year on incarceration. At the federal level, new leadership in the Justice Department is aiming for a smarter approach to public safety, while leaders like Senator Jim Webb have been pushing for a national reconsideration of issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, education for inmates and re-entry programs.
This year New York State took a major step in the right direction by reforming its draconian and counterproductive Rockefeller drug laws. Gone are the mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, giving judges wider discretion in sentencing and the possibility of treatment instead of lengthy incarceration. In New York City, where Robert Morgenthau is stepping down as Manhattan district attorney after thirty-four years, the hard-fought race to determine his successor in this high-profile post is providing a unique opportunity for a progressive re-envisioning of our criminal justice system, not only in the city but on a national scale.
Richard Aborn is the candidate who most passionately and boldly describes such an alternative future. He is also the candidate with the clearest record of lifelong and unwavering opposition to the death penalty and strong advocacy of Rockefeller drug-law reform.
Aborn is experienced in the way the system works (and fails). He served for five years as a prosecutor under Morgenthau. Since then, he has had broad experience working for a progressive approach to fighting crime. As president of Handgun Control Inc. (now the Brady Campaign) in the 1990s, he played a key role in passing the Brady Bill and the national assault weapons ban. He also led an independent investigation of the NYPD’s response to civilian complaints of misconduct and the disciplinary decisions following the 1999 police shooting of the unarmed civilian Amadou Diallo. As president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, Aborn recognized the failure of mass incarceration without opportunities for rehabilitation and the critical need to focus on prevention.
Aborn speaks openly about the injustice of nearly one out of three African-American men spending part of their lifetime in prison, and about the need to address the fact that four out of five young people are re-arrested within a few years of their first offense. He believes that it’s both more humane and more effective to stop crime before it starts–by getting guns off our streets before they’re used, by providing alternatives for at-risk kids and by treating drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime. And while most prosecutors judge success by tallying the total number of “sentence years” they accumulate in sending defendants to prison, Aborn has said he will emphasize innovative crime-prevention strategies. “We need a DA who knows that one of the best crime-fighting tools is a good after-school program or a job,” he says.
It’s noteworthy that on gun control, as the Obama administration and Democratic Congressional leaders back away from campaign pledges to renew the assault weapons ban and other sensible crime-fighting measures, Aborn continues to speak out boldly. He has laid out the most innovative ideas for addressing the gun problem–including a proposal to halt interstate trafficking of hard-to-trace guns, which is a major factor in violent crime–in the absence of Congressional willingness to take on the NRA. It is no surprise that the NRA is viciously attacking his campaign.
Despite being a political newcomer–and with Morgenthau and the New York Times endorsing another candidate–it is significant that Aborn’s experience and vision have won him the enthusiastic support of a diverse coalition, including law enforcement professionals, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, seventeen of the twenty-one elected New York City officials who have made endorsements and the progressive Working Families Party. The campaign’s momentum was recently speeded by US Representative Jerrold Nadler, who endorsed Aborn as “a true progressive leader who knows the DA office inside and out…[and] is far and away the best candidate for district attorney.”
This is a moment when the city, state and nation need a fearless, bona fide progressive and experienced lawyer and leader to take the helm at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where Aborn would play a highly visible role in making the city safe while introducing smart reforms in the way it deals with crime. The support for him among leaders and activists in Manhattan, as well as growing grassroots enthusiasm among voters, signals clearly that Richard Aborn is the right candidate at the right time. There being no GOP candidate, a win for Aborn in the September 15 Democratic primary could seal the deal.