Advocates who have fought for decades for criminal justice reform rightly see this moment as one where the stars are aligning for change. The fiscal crisis has governors and state 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 push for a national review of issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, racial injustice, education for inmates, and reentry programs.
New York state recently took a major step in the right direction by reforming the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. Gone are the mandatory-minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, replaced by judicial discretion and the possibility of treatment instead of mass incarceration. Now, in New York City, where Robert Morgenthau is stepping down as Manhattan District Attorney after 35 years, the race to determine his successor is providing a unique opportunity for a progressive re-envisioning of our criminal justice system. Richard Aborn is the candidate most passionately describing such an alternative future.
Aborn describes this moment as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way we think about criminal justice, right here in New York City” — where he’s no stranger to the way the system works (and fails).
He served for five years as a prosecutor under Morgenthau. Since then, he’s had broad and deep experience campaigning for a progressive approach to fighting crime. As the president of Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign), Aborn 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 shooting of Amadou Diallo. As the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, Aborn has recognized the failures of mass incarceration and the 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 jail, and the need to address the fact that four out of five young people are re-arrested within a few years of their first offense. In plainly addressing facts that politicians are too cautious to bring up, he’s reminding Americans who may have forgotten the full meaning of “justice” in the “criminal justice” system.
“We need to stop crime before it starts – by getting guns off our streets before they’re used, providing alternatives to at-risk kids and treating drug addiction as a public health problem,” Aborn recently said. Most prosecutors keep score by tallying the total number of “sentence years” they accumulate in sending defendants to prison for long stretches of time. Aborn has said he will start measuring how many crimes his office prevents.
“We need a DA who knows that one of the best crime-fighting tools is a good after-school program or a job,” he said.
It’s also noteworthy that on gun control — as the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership back away from campaign pledges to renew the assault weapons ban and other measures — Aborn continues to speak boldly. As a result, the NRA is attacking his campaign.
None of these problems are new to progressives – but hearing a prospective big-city prosecutor talk about them in this manner is welcome. And while many of Aborn’s specific ideas are proven methods of preventing crime, what’s particularly special is that a holistic vision is being so clearly articulated by a prosecutor. It’s no surprise that Aborn has already won the support of law enforcement professionals like former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and progressives like Assembly Members Jonathan Bing, Richard Gottfried, Deborah Glick, Linda Rosenthal and Daniel O’Donnell, and State Senators Bill Perkins and Eric Adams — the latter the co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
This is a moment where the city, state and nation need a bona fide progressive and experienced lawyer and leader to take the helm of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Aborn is the right candidate at the right time.