Tahanie Aboushi's campaign for Manhattan DA is all about *not* prosecuting

[Photo by Kisha Bari]
Originally Published: 

For New Yorkers, 2021 is another big election year. There's the high-profile, at-times bizarre mayoral race, as well as races for the majority of city council positions. But two district attorneys are up for re-election too, and although primaries aren't until June 22, the race for Manhattan's district attorney is already looking interesting, with progressive candidates like civil rights lawyer Tahanie Aboushi emerging with hopes of redefining just what it means to be district attorney.

Each of New York City's five boroughs has its own DA. While Eric Gonzalez, the current Brooklyn DA, is running unopposed, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. — who has faced heat for his failure to prosecute Harvey Weinstein as well as members of the Trump family — hasn't launched any sort of campaign yet, and sources close to Vance are saying he won't seek re-election.

In Vance's absence, Aboushi has joined eight other candidates vying for his position. So far, she's released policies on police accountability and declination, outlining over 40 offenses her office would not prosecute, namely those resulting from poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Decarceration is central to Aboushi's campaign, despite the fact that DAs are most known for prosecuting crimes and winning convictions that send people to jail. Aboushi's aim to transform the DA office comes from her own experiences, she says. Born into a Palestinian immigrant family, Aboushi tells Mic that she "lived through the damage and destruction that this system can cause." When she was 14, her father was sentenced to 22 years in prison, leaving her mother to be a single parent to 10 kids.

"I have dedicated my career to balancing the scales of justice," Aboushi says, "because it's personal to me."

"Seeing how families were vulnerable by a system that had too much unchecked power, it was important to me to not only become a lawyer, but to stand by families like mine and make structural changes in our city," she continues. To learn about her plans for NYC, Mic spoke to Aboushi this week about her campaign. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Mic: Your website describes your intention to "change the role of the district attorney to uplift the communities harmed by the prison industrial complex." Part of this includes making the office "transparent, participatory, and accountable to the public." What concrete steps will you take to ensure that happens?

Aboushi: We have two very important policies. One is a decline to prosecute, alternatives to incarceration, and diversion policy. Another is a police accountability policy. It's one thing to know what the big terms are, when we say we want to end mass incarceration and stop the targeting of communities of color. It's another to have been in it both personally and as an attorney, and understand how it plays out.

"Having the community not just at a seat at the table, but in a position of checks and balances for the police, is crucial."

For our decline to prosecute policy, we have subheadings to show how [the charges we'll decline to prosecute] essentially relegate the DA's office to debt collectors at the expense of Black and brown communities while never really impacting public safety. We're going to get rid of those charges and instead respond with resources. Cases that shouldn't be in our office — cases of social inequity, substance use disorder, homelessness, poverty, mental illness — will not be handled by our office. We're going to climb jurisdiction on those and identify the call for help. How do we get to the root cause? How do we actually help people?

The second part of our policies is transparency. There's probably no trust between communities of color and policing, as well as the DAs office. It's because a lot operates in an opaque, behind-the-scenes manner. The imbalance of power allows prosecutors and police a wide breadth of reigning information while civilians have nothing. You're starting at a disadvantage. We are going to be partnering with community-based organizations to make sure that we are documenting all aspects of an arrest: the content of the allegations, the source of evidence, the manner in which evidence was gathered, the background of the officer, what charges they're seeking, the basis for the stop. Take all of those different aspects of the person being accused — including race, gender, and where they live — with our public partners, identify abusive patterns in practice, hold officers and prosecutors who engage in that misconduct accountable, and then work together to find solutions. Having the community not just at a seat at the table, but in a position of checks and balances for the police, is crucial to the transparency part.

Mic: In your declination policy, you say you're committed to not prosecuting sex workers or charges resulting from poverty, mental illness, or substance use. What alternatives would you implement? How will they differ from the diversion programs that are being used today?

Aboushi: When we decline to prosecute a case, that means we're not charging it. That's an important distinction, because right now the district attorney's office will charge it, and that is what triggers options for diversion when it comes to social inequities. [Ed. note: Diversion programs are a form of pretrial sentencing where an offender may attend a rehabilitation program to avoid a conviction. They are available only after a person has been charged with a crime.]

The way diversion programs work now, there's no real measurement of success. Sometimes these programs have a fee; sometimes they're focused on attendance. But more importantly, there's no mercy or bandwidth for mistakes. For example, someone who is struggling with substance use disorder has to go through a certain amount of relapses before they can get to that next step. In addition, sometimes the information that comes out in these programs can be used to further prosecution. That is not an environment where people can grow, rehabilitate, or change their ways.

We should outsource all of that — the programming and quality, consistent treatment — to community-based organizations so we can provide people help [outside] of the DA's office. If they need the service, the service should be available. For those cases that move forward with charges, we're still identifying the cry for help — what is the underlying circumstance that needs to be addressed? — instead of the age-old, knee-jerk reactionary response, which is, "Hey, I've got one tool in my box. It's a hammer, so everything's a nail. So, all we can offer you is incarceration and other disruptive items that can destabilize your housing, your home, your family relationship."

"The decision to prosecute is so important. It goes well beyond the four corners of my office. It goes into people's homes and it stays with them for forever."

So again, partnerships with community-based organizations are important. Common Justice provides a lot of alternatives to incarceration and they've actually worked very well in Brooklyn and the Bronx. But Manhattan has refused to engage with them. Tailored programs will actually help us address root causes of crimes, focus on rehabilitation, and prevent them from happening again.

Mic: You've spoken about "shrinking the footprint" of the Manhattan DA office. Some might find it contradictory to run for DA while thinking that way. Can you break down what "shrinking the footprint" means to you?

Aboushi: It's important to first define the role of the district attorney. For me, it's to ensure the stability of our community. To ensure we are protecting people's rights and pursuing justice in a fair, open, and equitable manner. When you do that, you look beyond incarceration. You don't look for convicting at all costs. You understand that when you make the decision to prosecute or charge somebody, the risk factor includes destabilizing the home, children not having a parent, a parent not having their child, financial burden, the mental and emotional injuries, economic instability, housing instability, and, potentially, homelessness when that person comes back into society and there's no help for reintegration and support.

You put those factors on one side of the scale, and you have the charge on the other side. You ask: Would charging accomplish public safety? Is this in furtherance of justice? Is this in the interest of the public welfare and safety and well being? Oftentimes, the answer is not.

But those factors are often not considered by prosecutors. I'm an example of that. During my parents' trial, there was a moment in the courtroom where the judge asked the prosecutor, "What are you going to do with all these kids?" That question that was on my mind the whole time. Without hesitating, [the prosecutor] said, "They're not my problem." The fact that my siblings and I were set to become statistics and it meant nothing to the prosecutor is a problem.

If I didn't become an attorney but instead fell pray to other disruptions ... people would be like, yes. Sounds familiar. Sounds about right [because my father was incarcerated]. But it's not right. We've just been hearing it over and over and over again.

The old system and the police have tried to convince us that the only way to be safe is if we prosecute people at all costs, and get convictions at all costs, knowing that this system targets communities of color, low-income communities, and our immigrant communities. [That gives people with privilege comfort, because they feel] that, "Hey, no one is looking our way. But now I feel safe, because those others are being targeted, prosecuted, and incarcerated."

That's why the decision to prosecute is so important. It goes well beyond the four corners of my office. It goes into people's homes and it stays with them for forever. We better be taking these factors into consideration and understanding the full extent that the damage and destruction that our decisions have.

Right now, the footprint of this office is [huge]. These decisions are being made without due consideration to the destabilization of homes. When you look at the charges like the ones on my [declination] list, those are unnecessary prosecutions that don't impact public safety, but are are indications of underlying circumstances. There's instability and we need to respond with resources. You're not going to incarcerate your way out of substance use disorder, homelessness, poverty, not even domestic violence. The response to those is resources.

What do the victims need? Restorative justice. How are we going to ensure that this doesn't happen again? How are we going to identify this instability in other areas and make sure that we interfere by providing resources? We should be proactive, not waiting until something happens then jumping in after the fact.

Mic: This summer, nationwide civil uprisings led to increased demands to defund and abolish police. As part of your platform, you vowed to cut the Manhattan DA office's $169 million budget in half while advocating for "divesting from policing regimes like the NYPD." How do you see your pledges existing alongside defunding demands?

Aboushi: As a civil rights lawyer, I handle cases of excessive force. I've been holding the NYPD accountable for a long time, whether it be discipline, termination, or prosecutorial misconduct. I've also gone even further to change abusive policies and practices in the patrol guides. I know how to navigate adversarial waters and hold the police accountable, while also ensuring that we can have a working relationship.

But at the core of everything I do is understanding that grave imbalance of power. You do have a police officer with the authority to carry a weapon — sometimes discharge that weapon — who is afforded a lot of protections, locally, state, and federally. All these administrative regulations that provide protections for them afford a defense without them paying for it and introduce you to the prosecution system based on their own narrative and their own facts. On the other side of that equation is the civilian — you, and whatever you have in your pocket.

[Photo by Kisha Bari]

We have to be extremely critical of their actions. These are positions of public trust. There's way too much space here for abuse of authority, and there's no one representing that civilian. It's important to analyze how these cases come to our office with allegations, to stand with our advocates and reformers on the ground to help identify abusive policies and practices, and to use this office as a bully pulpit to fight to change them. And as DA, I'll identify independence from the NYPD. I'll say, "Hey, we don't need X unit. I know the goal is to prevent X. But here's the data and it's not happening."

Standing with our advocates is similar to what [New York] Attorney General Letitia James is doing with the protester cases. We held a public hearing to hear from hundreds of protesters and anyone that wanted to testify, identified abusive practices, and then filed a lawsuit saying, "I'm agreeing with the advocates and the public here. Whether the mayor and the commissioner want to look the other way, I'm not." The AG's office, too, works with the NYPD and other law enforcement. I think that's a perfect example of what the Manhattan DA's office could and should be doing.

Mic: New York City is a surveillance hotspot. In Muslim communities specifically, police were instrumental in the development of now debunked radicalization theories that would later feed federal programming like [former President Barack] Obama's Countering Violent Extremism, and [former President Donald] Trump's Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention. How would your administration address surveillance in New York?

Aboushi: We seek to stop it. From the gang database to the DNA database to unlawfully surveilling people based on their race, religion, their political beliefs — all of that is unconstitutional. As a civil rights attorney, I fought that so much. That's the overreaching power of enforcement, including the DA's office. Because when you say things are in the interest of security and safety, it allows for a lot of leeway for abuse because the public is kept in the dark as to what exactly that means. We have to challenge them and force there to be a concrete material justification for asking to violate people's privacy and rights.

Databases like the gang database serve to pre-criminalize people, especially our youth, without them ever having done anything and solely because of affiliations, immaterial or foreign, that are defined by police. It's dangerous, so I would work to erase them.