Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has been a lightning rod for right-wing attacks and media scrutiny after his controversial indictment of former president Donald Trump on 34 felony charges.
“Without Mr. Trump, Mr. Bragg would be remembered merely as Manhattan’s worst district attorney,” said one op-ed by The Wall Street Journal.
Lost in the headlines and dueling op-eds is the suite of bold legal reforms that Bragg is implementing with the goal of reducing inequity in justice and improving community safety.
Bragg, the city’s first Black DA, instructed his staff to view prison as a “last resort,” according to an article in The Washington Post by Paulina Villegas.
“Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer,” he wrote in a 2022 memo explaining his new guidelines to his staff after his election.
Bragg, a 49-year-old father of two and Sunday school teacher, grew up in Harlem in the 1980s surrounded by violent crime. Before he turned 21, he had a gun pointed at him six times — three times by the police — and had a loved one who struggled with life after incarceration.
Now, he is using his lived experience and personal understanding of the criminal justice system to help reform the very system he now runs.
Vincent M. Southerland, a professor at New York University School of Law, described Bragg’s policies as a “dramatic departure” from Manhattan’s previous DAs, who emphasized “tough-on-crime, overly punitive policies” that fueled the growth of prison and jail populations “exponentially.”
Instead of fixating on incarceration, Bragg is focusing on alternatives like community service, diversion programs, and restorative justice. In similar fashion, he has supported initiatives to finance mental health care services for people arrested in Manhattan and funded programs to help prevent youth gun violence, according to reporting in Vanity Fair.
Bragg has argued that prison and harsh sentences produce collateral harms that perpetuate crime rather than build community safety. His memo directs prosecutors to consider the impacts of incarceration on budgets, communities, and public safety as well as the “racially disparate use of incarceration.”
The instructions also prohibit the prosecution of low-level offenses such as public transportation fare evasion and prostitution, downgrade certain felonies, and set 20 years as the maximum prison term that prosecutors can request, other than for exceptional cases. In addition, seeking sentences of life without parole is no longer an option for prosecutors.
Bragg also put strict limits on pretrial detention. He cited the condition of the city’s Rikers Island jails, plagued by extreme overcrowding and violence, to support his directive to reserve pretrial detention for very serious cases only.
“Bragg is saying there are other ways of punishing people, seeking justice and deterring people from committing crimes other than incarceration,” said Bennett Capers, who teaches law at Fordham University.
Alana Sivin, a former public defender and advocate for legal reform, welcomed Bragg’s guidelines. She said they will shift the focus to “real robberies, not a harmless person who walked into a store to steal underwear with a hand in his pocket.”
Sivin explained that upgrading petty thefts to felony robbery is a common practice that disproportionately affects marginalized people of color.
“I have seen so many people spend years in prison for stealing maybe $25 worth of items, simply because a store clerk said they saw them point to their pocket,” she wrote on Twitter. “So many lives will be changed for the better through the policy.”
Downgrading petty thefts to focus on serious financial crimes and fraud in his Manhattan jurisdiction, the world’s most important financial center, is consistent with Bragg’s indictment of former president Trump. The grand jury indictment alleges Trump falsified business records in an effort to perpetuate felony election and tax fraud.
In his press conference announcing the indictment, Bragg said that no one is above the law.
However, just like the disagreements over Trump’s indictment, some people have disagreed with Bragg’s reforms. Experts like Southerland said some level of resistance from police and the public to the reforms is to be expected.
One of those is Patrick Lynch, president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, which represents approximately 24,000 police members. Lynch questioned the new guidelines and claimed it would encourage criminals.
“Police officers don’t want to be sent out to enforce laws that the district attorneys won’t prosecute,” Lynch said. “And there are already too many people who believe that they can commit crimes, resist arrest, interfere with police officers and face zero consequences.”
Bragg has full authority to implement the new policies, but he said he would hold “discussions” with the union and other parties to help refine the guidelines as they are implemented.
“While my commitment to making incarceration a matter of last resort is immutable, the path to get there through these policies will be dynamic, and not static, and will be informed by our discussions and our work with trial lawyers, law enforcement and others,” Bragg said in a statement to The Washington Post.