In an editorial penned this February, the The New York Times inaugurated the beginning of a “wiser generation of prosecutors,” ones who would “change the national conversation” about criminal justice. In recent years a swarm of reform-ticket prosecutors have sailed into office buoyed waves of outrage over racism and police brutality, from Kim Foxx in Chicago to Kim Ogg in Houston to activist lawyer Larry Krasner’s recent victory in Philadelphia’s Democratic primary.
The latest opportunity to seat a progressive prosecutor is the primary for district attorney of Brooklyn, which with a population of nearly 2.7 million would be the fourth-largest city in the country if taken by itself. The chief prosecutor for the borough is not just a subordinate official in New York City politics but an independent executive with broad power to change policies that affect millions of people.
Last year the future of the office was thrown into question last October when the much-lauded previous DA, Kenneth Thompson, died suddenly of cancer. Thompson was an outsider elected on a message of reform. He said he would “refuse to shrug his shoulders in the face of injustice,” and promised to change the culture of the corrupt, inefficient office. By the time he died he had overturned almost two dozen wrongful convictions.
Thompson’s longtime second in command, Eric Gonzalez, became the acting DA after his passing and is the de facto incumbent in this year’s election. Gonzalez claims that the late Thompson anointed him as his successor, telling him to consider running for DA once Thompson passed. But despite his claims to Thompson’s mantle, Gonzalez faces a crowded field of five challengers, all of whom seek to prove that they are the real progressives, the most faithful to Thompson’s spirit as a reformer.
In the early months of the campaign, Gonzalez gobbled up much of the political playing field. He secured endorsements from community organizations and advocacy groups including Vocal New York and the Working Families Party, and more recently a coveted endorsement from The New York Times. The Times cited Gonzalez’s long career as a prosecutor, a trait he shares with all his challengers, in addition to the “intimate perspective” he got on the criminal-justice system from growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. Other endorsements have alluded to Gonzalez’s support for policies—cash-bail reform, diversionary programs for drug offenders—also supported by all of Gonzalez’s opponents.
Gonzalez has also raised what his opponents and outside observers say is an alarming amount of money—over $1.5 million dollars, more than five times the next-highest candidate. His opponents see this as a chance to cement his hold on power without giving voters a chance to judge him in comparison to his challengers. A chunk of that money has come from for-profit bail-bond companies, which throws Gonzalez’s promises to pursue bail reform in a new light; furthermore, he’s the only candidate endorsed by a police union, which doesn’t look good on a prosecutor who’s trying to take up Thompson’s legacy of reform.
Even Gonzalez, who is the most moderate candidate and the only one who still makes traditional appeals to “safety” and “getting criminals off the streets,” is still far to the left by national standards. But his challengers go even further, pledging a total end to broken-windows policing and an aggressive phasing-out of cash bail. They also pledge to send far fewer people to Rikers Island and to explore different alternatives to incarceration, reaching out to community groups and establishing mental-health courts and drug courts. The challengers also talk a lot about reforming the “culture” of the office. Ama Dwimoh, currently special counsel to the Brooklyn borough president, praises Ken Thompson’s effort to overturn wrongful convictions, but wants to establish an independent review unit for prosecutorial misconduct. At a recent two-hour forum, audience members expressed to me that they had difficulty telling the candidates’ platforms apart—all seemed to agree on the major points, and differed only in how they articulated their vision.
Given these similarities, the candidates are mostly running on “character” and “experience,” attempting to differentiate themselves from the conviction-happy culture of the Brooklyn office. Vincent Gentile, who has never worked in the Brooklyn DA’s office but currently represents the Bay Ridge neighborhood in City Council, says he’d bring Thompson’s outsider spirit to the job. Anne Swern, who worked as managing counsel to the Brooklyn public defenders’ office, said she’d bring a perspective from “the other side” to the job. Marc Fliedner talks up his DSA membership and his record of prosecuting police misconduct (he convicted Akai Gurley’s killer), while Patricia Gatling, who headed the NYC Commission on Human Rights for over a decade, cites her background as evidence she’ll bring a “holistic” approach to dispensing justice.
But activists who work around issues of mass incarceration and police brutality are skeptical of even the challengers’ progressive credentials. New York area organizers who spoke on background because their organizations have endorsed (or cannot endorse) in the race expressed wariness of Gonzalez’s closeness to bail-bond companies and the PBA, but also noted that reformist positions are “politically convenient” in New York at the moment, and that all the candidates primarily have backgrounds as criminal prosecutors. One organizer spoke of a “race to the left” in Brooklyn and emphasized that all the candidates except Gentile served as prosecutors in the DA’s office under Ken Thompson’s corrupt and disgraced predecessor, Charles Hynes. The candidates all talk a big progressive game, these organizers suggested, but there’s no telling how much of it they’d actually follow through on.
Considering the country’s track record in recent years with electing progressive prosecutors, these organizers might be justified in their skepticism. While many have celebrated the new officeholders, their performance has been mixed. The archetypal figure in this respect is Kamala Harris, whom The New York Times Magazine deemed a “top cop in the era of Black Lives Matter.” Harris made a number of bold reforms to the criminal-justice system when elected as chief prosecutor in San Francisco—she established a community-college program for offenders and went after polluters and profiteers—but also cracked down on sex workers and fought to preserve both the death penalty and a harsh life-sentencing rule.
Other local prosecutors have records that are just as checkered as Harris’s. Elected on the suggestion that they will be tough on police and soft on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, these prosecutors proceed to maintain or increase the harsh convictions and sentences of their predecessors. Chicago’s former state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who labeled herself a “progressive,” was ousted after she delayed prosecuting the cop who shot Laquan McDonald in the back 16 times. Her successor, Kim Foxx, was catapulted to victory by a host of local progressive organizations, but since taking office has had a mixed record; she has taken steps to move the county away from cash bail and ease up convictions on low-level crimes, but has also called for harsher prosecution of gun offenses and has declined to revisit two high-profile cases of police misconduct. Kim Ogg, elected as a reformer district attorney in Houston and praised for her position on the death penalty, recently announced in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey that “looters” would be prosecuted with extra force. Slate and The Marshall Project have also chronicled the ambiguous performance of supposed reformers elected in cities as far and wide as Denver, Baton Rouge, and Tampa.
That was even before Larry Krasner, a radical civil-rights lawyer who has sued the police 75 times and defended Black Lives Matter in court, won the Democratic primary for district attorney of Philadelphia. Based on their platforms, any of the candidates running for Brooklyn DA would join Krasner as among the most progressive prosecutors in the country, but experience has shown that prosecutors often stop short of promised reforms once they take office. It’s wise for even traditional candidates to model themselves as outsiders and progressives in this political climate, and even for those who are sincere, entrenched cultures at big-city offices like Brooklyn’s can be cutthroat and resistant to change.
Nevertheless, local prosecutors have a great deal of influence on the criminal-justice process in their cities, and electing serious and ambitious reformers is nothing less than urgent. The Brooklyn DA’s office, one of the largest in the country, is a ripe place to start, in this regard. One organizer who commented on the race celebrated the fact that district-attorney positions have become political, but had hoped to see more attention and mobilization around the Brooklyn election than actually occurred. DA candidates have started running like politicians, the organizer noted—now they need to be held accountable like politicians, too.