By Daniel Katzive
Alvin Bragg is making the rounds. The District Attorney for Manhattan has kicked off the new year with a series of interviews, sitting down with NY1, the New York Times, City and State, and others. Last week, it was West Side Rag’s turn to talk with the DA about issues on the minds of Upper West Siders.
We asked the district attorney why he was reaching out to news organizations across the borough now. He told us that hitting the one-year mark in his four-year term in office meant the timing was right to discuss his track record. But he also acknowledged that something he has learned on the job is that he needs to communicate more with the community on what his office is doing.
“We have a saying among prosecutors: ‘The work speaks for itself,’” Bragg said. “That’s true in a micro sense. But in a more macro sense, the work doesn’t speak for itself….We’ve got to contextualize it, we’ve got to put it out there for folks.”
A lifelong resident of Central Harlem, Bragg notes that he has spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side. He attended the private Trinity School on West 91st Street before going on to Harvard for college and law school. The Upper West Side, he says, “is a great example of how we are an island of really great, deep-knit communities.” He mentions recently sharing fond memories with a friend of Twin Donut near the 96th Street IRT station. He knows the neighborhood.
We brought up the recent murder of Maria Hernandez, 74, in her apartment on West 83rd Street. A suspect was quickly arrested for the crime who, police said, had a prior conviction for murder, for which he served a lengthy sentence. Just a few months before Hernandez’s death, the suspect was arrested again on charges of burglary and released on his own recognizance. Our readers questioned how the justice system is handling prior offenders with violent histories.
While he did not comment on the Hernandez case, Bragg said “violent crime is what we spend most of our time thinking about at the DA’s office, particularly starting with gun violence, which dropped this past year, and on gun interdictions, which is a significant input into why shootings and homicides are down, not just citywide, but further in Manhattan. We are putting our resources on those in the community who are doing the most significant harm and asking in court every single day for bail.”
With respect to bail laws, he pointed to data showing the violent felony re-offender rate for those out on bail is a number that’s been relatively stable pre- and post- the state’s 2020 bail reform law. “Obviously any violent felony is not a good thing. But we keep a close eye on that number, and that number has been relatively stable. We are keeping an eye on the data and happy to talk to those in Albany as they have this conversation. And we’ll look at any language [on bail laws] that they put in front of us,” Bragg said.
Shifting away from the most violent of crimes, we brought up the word “consequences.” It’s a word we hear often at the West Side Rag, in comments posted on our site and at community forums from West Side residents and even in remarks made by police officers and police leadership. Generally, the context is that people feel that the consequences are not sufficient for some of the lower level crimes that we’re seeing affect the community.
The DA again referred to the track record of the past year, citing the response of his office in cooperation with the NYPD to the surge in shoplifting in the borough in early 2022. “We compared our data with [the NYPD’s data] and saw that 14% or so of those arrested for shoplifting accounted for more than 45% of the arrests in 2021. So we started focusing on that population and looked at those who had three or more shoplifting arrests in 2021. So we are focused and very active in that space and a third of that population was in custody at the end of last year.”
“We have got to have consequences,” but law enforcement also needs to look at “underlying drivers of crime,” Bragg said. “So for that population where mental health or substance abuse were maybe driving that, we’re looking at alternatives as well…. And we’re focusing on those who are recidivists but also connecting folks to services….We have to do both, with smart and targeted enforcement combined with community investments that prevent the misconduct in the first place.”
We asked about how deteriorating conditions at Rikers Island played into the equation. Does dysfunction in the city’s jail make judges and prosecutors more reluctant to hold suspects awaiting trial?
While Bragg was careful to say he couldn’t speak for judges, he allowed that “generally I think the conditions at Rikers weigh on many of us in the system,” and explained that “as a matter of policy, I talk often about needing a third lane. We have to make very, very challenging decisions every day on people who in the perfect world would neither be out in our neighborhoods nor in Rikers.”
He spoke about the need for secure pre-trial facilities for those with mental health issues and about plans from Gov. Kathy Hochul to restore inpatient psychiatric beds in hospitals across the state. “Absent those resources, the 500 great career prosecutors in the office each day are making really, really challenging decisions. We obviously make them in a granular way based on the facts of the case and the background, but we need more resources. We need alternatives. We need those psychiatric beds. And obviously we ultimately need a place for pretrial detention that has better conditions.”
Bragg’s office has announced its own plans to try to address the crisis in mental health in the borough. There are two parts to the program, a community-based program connecting people in need with mental health services, and a court-based program getting services for suspects at arraignment.
For Bragg, the community program has a personal connection. “My dad used to run homeless shelters for the city, and we would walk around Harlem and the Upper West Side, talking to who he’d refer to as clients, and I would see that kind of human connection. Then this year as DA and sitting in criminal court: if you go down to criminal court you see the shortcomings of our social service network, particularly our healthcare infrastructure. So we think that piece is going to help a lot of those people who may have no justice involvement, on the prevention side.”
In terms of the court-based program, Bragg said, “Right now if you get arrested and arraigned let’s say on Tuesday at eight o’clock, someone says, oh, we’ve got this service for you if you go to such and such building Friday at 9:00. But you know, folks who present in criminal court who need that service usually don’t have an Outlook calendar so you have got to get them while they are there and make the connection while they are still there, getting the resources and start the connection.”
Will it work? Will people look around a year from now and say “you know what, things seem a little bit better”? we asked.
Bragg concedes that “none of this is a panacea. But it’s part of the puzzle.” He added, “if we did nothing else, if we stopped prosecuting people and only did this, that wouldn’t work. Right? So we’re going to continue our enforcement and then also think about other ideas.” Bragg said he believes in “thoughtful, targeted prosecution, paired with thoughtful preventive intervention. I think this is the way forward on these issues.”
“Look, there are no silver bullets here. It’s an all-of-the-above approach.”