Works of Justice Podcast: Manhattan DA Candidate Lucy Lang on the Importance of Local Elections
NICOLETTE NATALE: Hi Lucy, thank you so much for joining us today. Before we begin, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about yourself and how your time as an assistant DA inspired you to join John Jay’s Institute for Innovation and Prosecution, and now, run for DA.
LUCY LANG: Thank you so much for including me in this conversation, Nicolette, and thanks for all the work that you and your team are doing to elevate these critically important issues in New York City and nationally right now. I think that the voice that you all are bringing has never been more important, and I’m honored to be a part of the conversation.
I started at the district attorney’s office right out of law school. One of the reasons that I went to the DA’s office was that while I was in law school, a childhood friend of mine was tragically murdered by her mentally ill brother. And I had the experience of watching a family struggle with being both the victims of a horrible, violent crime and simultaneously be connected to the person who had committed that terrible violent crime. And I saw the ways in which the prosecutor’s office in particular failed to support the family in both of those contexts. So, I went to the DA’s office, very mindful of the incredible potential for supporting both crime victims and people who are going through the system because prosecutors, of course, touch both of those populations. And well beyond that, it ripples out into everyone who has a relationship with folks who come through the system and folks who are victimized. So, that brought me to the DA’s office, where I ultimately handled violent crime, including domestic violence and homicide.
And, through that work, I ultimately developed a course that brought assistant district attorneys inside of New York state prisons to study criminal justice alongside incarcerated students. That was really eye-opening for me to realize how detached myself and my colleagues had become from the consequences of our decision-making when it came to sentencing.
And that was part of what propelled me to the work I spent the past two years doing at the Institute for Innovation and Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which involved working with prosecutors in communities across the country on thoughtful, evidence-based criminal justice reform that prioritizes the issues of racial equity that have become increasingly part of the public conversation around the need for reform.
NATALE: Thank you so much for sharing your own personal story. As this podcast will sit in our Temperature Check series, reflecting on the pandemic’s impact in prisons and beyond, let’s start with the heat of the moment. In your view, what does a humane response to COVID-19 in prisons look like? And what impact does a DA have on criminal justice responses to the pandemic?
LANG: That is such a big question, Nicolette, and the academic in me wants to say, we’re going to know a lot more about this in the next generation looking back. But, what I can say on the ground right now—and what the advocate and activist in me sees—is that there is an incredible urgency to get people out of prisons and jails because of the fact that we’ve seen that they are true hotbeds for the spreading of the virus.
But one of the challenges around those very much-needed reforms that should not have taken a pandemic to come to our attention, is that it’s illuminating some of the other holes in our social infrastructure—and in New York City in particular, where we have a million people unemployed and are seeing an increase in street homelessness.
Part of it is that we have a generation of bad policy in New York City that resulted in the criminal justice system becoming the backstop for people suffering from mental illness and substance use. And as we have rightfully recognized that those really shouldn’t be criminal justice problems, there is a need for other social services to provide wraparound support to people who are suffering.
And I think that that is what we’re seeing increasingly, daily, in New York City right now—that folks are really struggling with.
NATALE: Yeah, this is speaking a little bit to what you were talking about in terms of wanting to get people out right now. In this historical moment, abolition and defunding of the police has become a dialogue that’s quickly shifted from the margins to the mainstream. In addition, activists and reformists are applying pressure in support of releasing more incarcerated people under heightened threat of contracting COVID-19. What do you say to the average citizen concerned about public safety in response to these calls to action?
LANG: This crisis moment requires collaborative, visionary leadership that has the long-term health of all communities top of mind. I think it comes back to the homelessness question in many respects and what services are being provided to people who are suffering. So, I would say that we should be diverting resources away from traditional law enforcement methods.
And establishing pathways, connecting people who are suffering with services and housing, rather than with courts. There are some strong models nationally—Staten Island Hope, Seattle Lead—that connect people with peer navigators and community-based programs, rather than bringing them into the court system.
So, we need to really think about investing in those programs. Similarly, we should be partnering with program shelters and investing in housing and supportive housing for people who would otherwise get wrapped up in the system. And then, there are some really asinine policies that need to be revisited, that don’t necessarily require additional resources. So, I would encourage New York City to look critically at the prohibition on people with criminal records, returning home to their families in public housing. And finally, I think that a huge amount needs to be moved from traditional law enforcement methods into trauma-informed trainings—both for prosecutors and police.
NATALE: So, in April, Governor Cuomo amended the state’s recent bail reform law from January. Can you explain these changes and how prosecutors are taking into consideration the pandemic—such as how social distancing cannot be practiced in prisons—before or if requesting bail?
LANG: There are more than 60 district attorneys statewide, and they have different approaches to how they handle bail. The changes to the bail reforms unfortunately rolled back some of the gains of the reforms earlier this year. And I think it’s very variable how jurisdictions are handling it.
The good news is that we have seen a significant decrease in the population of people who were being detained at Rikers Island. But, the heartbreaking news is that people are still contracting COVID-19 in jails and prisons statewide, and prosecutors and others could do far more to keep people out of detention. It also requires—on the subject of defunding, it requires a real investment in supports to ensure that people who do remain home in their communities are given the help that they need to make sure that they don’t recommit offenses, don’t hurt people in their communities, and are complying with the terms of their release.
NATALE: I also just want to talk about an article that you have recently published, which was, “The devastating consequences of leaving higher education out of prison reform,” which you wrote with Vivian Nixon, who also happens to be one of our PEN America Writing For Justice Fellows. So, in this piece, you emphasize the importance of a college degree for many reasons, including “even in the worst of times, a college degree stands as an essential buffer against economic uncertainty.” Essentially, you advocate for an expansion of higher education programs in prisons, taking into account a post-pandemic economy and how a college degree would be more of a step toward financial security. How can people join you in advocating for the expansion of higher education programs in prisons, and what do these programs look like during the pandemic?
LANG: I should preface it by saying that no one should have to go to prison to get a college education. I think that all the policies that we’re talking about now are policies that we’re talking about in the context of the system that we currently have, and the hope ultimately is that we rely on removing people from their communities as rarely as possible. And that when people are removed, they’re given education and other services that they need.
But looking at the question of college and prison, given the extent to which we rely on it, we know that the single biggest factor in keeping someone from returning to prison is access to education while they’re incarcerated.
So, whether or not you have a humanitarian view of people who are incarcerated—which I think that everyone should—it’s just good policy to educate people while they are in prison, because it makes them less likely to go back there. And that is safer and cheaper and more humane for everyone. So, I would encourage advocates to include supporting of Pell Grants and college and prison programming on their list of demands to state and federal authorities.
And, in my experience, I found the Department of Corrections willing to bring in volunteers and educational supports. I don’t think that there’s a prison in this state that has too many people in there teaching. So, certainly encourage advocates and people who care about these issues to explore opportunities to volunteer in, work in, and teach in their local prisons.
NATALE: Thank you so much for your answer. I also wanted to talk about another article that you wrote, which was “Restorative justice in action: a man killed another man. Then he sat in a circle with his victim’s family.” Because in it, you discuss the healing powers of restorative justice and how this can be an option utilized to decrease mass incarceration. In this article, Mr. Lee—who is charged for second degree murder—has his sentence reduced from 25 to 10 years after going through the restorative justice process. Can you walk us through what such a process might look like, and as a DA, how you would implement restorative processes in your work and to what ends?
LANG: Restorative justice is a range of practices that involve bringing together a person who has been hurt with the person who committed that harm against them. It often can also include some community representation. This bringing together generally only happens after all of the parties have been appropriately prepared for the conversation.
And it’s done not with an eye necessarily toward forgiveness, but with an eye toward sharing. So, there are a number of outstanding organizations in New York City and New York State working on restorative justice issues—some of them in collaboration with the courts. And it really comes from the tradition of indigenous people conducting peacemaking circles, but can be applied in a whole range of different contexts when harms are committed in communities. So, I was inspired by the situation that I had described in that article, having had the opportunity to watch a circle between a man who killed someone and the son of the man who was killed, in which they shared their own experiences that led them to be in that room together.
Ultimately, the son of the man who was killed expressed his sorrow at the fact that the man who had committed the crime was going to be going to prison. And the man who committed the crime expressed his remorse at what he had done and got to hear about the man who had been killed and the unfinished book that he had imagined writing, and really, what it costs the family and the community to lose that man.
Inspired by that, I intend to create a district attorney’s office that really sees restorative justice as part of the everyday practice of the office. So, that would include developing a full-time staff dedicated to the implementation of restorative justice practices. It would include expanding the scope of offenses eligible for restorative justice.
Many prosecutors’ offices that are experimenting with restorative justice are doing it with very low-level offenses, with misdemeanors, with property crimes—and based on my own experience and some well-documented experiences elsewhere, there is tremendous potential for restorative justice to be part of the response to violent crime; in particular, intimate partner violence in cases where we know that violence is cyclical and that punitive responses don’t necessarily help interrupt the cycle of that violence.
I would also provide restorative justice training as a core component of the training for every prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. And most importantly, perhaps, work with community partners to design the restorative justice programming, because it’s really a kind of response that can’t come from law enforcement. It has to come from the community and from people who have expertise in restorative practices. So, any district attorney’s office designing a restorative justice approach should do it in collaboration with community partners, which is what I would do.
NATALE: So, I know that we touched upon this a little bit earlier, and in this article, you were talking about how Mr. Lee had only 51 cents in his bank account and was behind on his rent before stealing $300 from Mr. Kim and before pushing him to his untimely and tragic death. I was just wondering, maybe more broadly, if you could speak to what power a DA has to influence policy that could address the relationship between financial inequities and crimes of survival.
LANG: One of the primary ways that district attorneys can address issues of economic inequity is through the traditional law enforcement tools being applied to support people who are in vulnerable positions. So, for example, district attorneys can do a tremendous amount to investigate and prosecute instances of wage theft, where workers—often undocumented workers or people who are otherwise financially vulnerable and may have great skepticism toward the system—are having their wages withheld.
We’ve seen an increase, sadly, in this kind of conduct during COVID. So, that’s an area that prosecutors can really invest in trying to make sure that workers receive what they’re entitled to. Another area is around evictions and tenants’ rights and where landlords are violating the rights of vulnerable New Yorkers, or participating in fraud that victimizes people. Prosecutors have a role to play in enforcing those laws as well.
NATALE: I also want to talk about an article that you wrote with Jamila Hodge, which was, “How prosecutors can usher in a more just legal system.” In it, you discuss how racism is embedded in the criminal legal system and how predictive policing models are built on data corrupted by racial bias. There’s rising concern over facial recognition technology, and it’s been documented that recognition is not as accurate for people of color and women and can and has led to the incorrect arrest of individuals. From a privacy and racial justice lens, as DA, how would you address these growing concerns?
LANG: It is vital that all district attorney policies be viewed through a racial justice lens. That is at the core of the deficiencies in the criminal justice system. It is equally vital that district attorneys are able to fully investigate crimes to ensure that communities who are victimized are given the support that they need.
And, to that end, I think we have gotten away in many contexts from traditional investigative techniques. There, in particular, we saw this stalling during COVID, but debriefings of witnesses, extensive engagement with victims, eyewitness accounts. So, of course, we know that there are challenges with eyewitness identifications—and none of these things are perfect—but I do think that it is really important to think about the human elements of investigations and really prioritize procedural justice principles and other truth-finding principles, in conducting investigations rather than solely relying on machines to do the work of understanding the complexity of human relationships, and the ways in which people harm one another.
NATALE: Before our interview ends, is there anything else you’d like to add?
LANG: Well, I would love to invite my beloved friend, Robbie Pollock, to say a few words on any of these issues. You know, I think that the work that I have been privileged to do with Robbie and other friends and colleagues who have been through the system has been the great privilege so far of my career. And a key tenant of my platform for Manhattan DA is bringing in voices of people who have traditionally been not just shut out, but locked up by the criminal justice system. One of my primary priorities as district attorney will be to ensure that the staff includes people who have been through the system, the staff includes people who have been victims of crime, and to ensure that there are advisory groups that include parents who’ve lost loved ones to police violence, who’ve lost loved ones to street violence, and people who have participated in a whole range of harms so that we can ensure that the policies of the district attorney’s office are ones that serve everyone who the district attorney is sworn to serve.
POLLOCK: I get all emotional when you talk, Lucy. It’s like so many rivers come together in the roles that you’ve played in the world. So, I remember the very first time I sat down in your office to talk to you, and I don’t know what it is that makes a formerly incarcerated person just gush a life story out.
But, I recall the feeling of feeling very seen and heard, and it hasn’t gone away. And I’ve watched you interact with many, many people. I’ve been in rooms with you where there’s a really crazy mixture of high and low statuses in society. Watching how those interactions play out—where everybody is given equal voice and is seen as equally human—is a really powerful thing, and it’s also really hard to craft, and I think the skill at which you’ve done it is remarkable. And enviable, in fact. I also am really interested—obviously PEN is a literary organization—we don’t always get writing of the kind that Vivian does and that you do, and in your work, I kind of wish I could illuminate the role that writing takes as you communicate your messages, as you get your efforts out into the world. I guess this is forming into a question, but like, how do you wield the tool of writing? How do you convince people? How do you distill ideas into powerful, communicable messages? How is writing playing a role in your DA run right now?
LANG: Gosh, Robbie, it’s a beautiful and complicated question. And I know that you would have a similarly complicated answer yourself as a writer. The kind of obvious answer is that people like to hear stories. And that’s part of why you and I both like to tell stories. A lot of what I have been thinking about though, with respect to the campaign and communicating around it, is that many of the stories that matter to me in my life, that inform my view of the need for change, are not my story to tell.
And so, I am mindful about when I tell stories, trying to encourage other people to raise their own voices and share them where appropriate and not to share stories that aren’t my own. And that’s an interesting thing to bring to this. I think that another important part of writing about policy is to think about things in terms of the sort of short, medium, and long term. Right?
Not everything that we advocate for now is necessarily consistent with the goal of ending mass incarceration, because it’s imperfect, but it gets us that much closer. Right? So, there are different theories of change that we all bring to bear on our work as writers, especially who write about and think about and advocate for policy.
But, I do think that there is a lot to be said for, you know, where am I coming down on this issue today? Because it gets me closer to a long-term goal. And we’ve talked about this before, Robbie, but when I advocate to my young colleagues who are leaving for law school right now about how to direct their one precious life as Mary Oliver says, I often say, “Well, maybe education is the way to invest your time, to become an expert and solve public education in this country.”
And, for me, being 15 years into my career and having spent all of it working in criminal justice, I feel like this is the path for me to make my impact. When I think about my wild and precious life, I believe that we can end mass incarceration in my lifetime. And if I believe that, then there is no way for me to turn away from that calling. So, I see everything that I am doing professionally as a teacher, as a prosecutor, now as a candidate, as being with an eye toward that goal—which is long-term in a sense, but very short-term in the history of this country.
POLLOCK: Well, that’s just, goddamn inspiring, Lucy. I don’t know what else to say! It’s like, I think you made Nicolette cry.
NATALE: Yeah, a little bit.
LANG: Aw, well thank you guys for including me. I’m just honored to be included in the conversation, and thank you for having me on the program today. Thank you, Nicolette.