Alvin Bragg (306685)
Alvin Bragg Credit: Photo courtesy of Alvin Bragg

“I’ve had a semi-automatic weapon pointed at my head,” said Manhattan District Attorney candidate Alvin Bragg during a Zoom interview. “I’ve had a loved one have his best friend shot and killed in front of them and looked at that loved one’s eyes shortly thereafter and no one should have to see that look.”

“I was here in the ’80s. We’re not in the ’80s.”

Bragg won the Democratic primary for election for Manhattan D.A. earlier this month fending off close to 10 candidates looking to replace Cy Vance. He has been full speed ahead on the campaign. In a majority Democratic city, getting the message out still remains important.

“And I believe that it will resonate with others,” Bragg, a Harlem native, said.

Bragg served as chief deputy attorney general for New York State and worked as a former assistant to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who endorsed him last November. Bragg is also a visiting professor at the New York School of Law, among other things.

He’s also a child of the crack epidemic, which ravaged the Black and Brown community in New York. He saw how violent the city could be in the 1980s. He once said police pointed guns at him when he was 15 and that he had a knife pulled on him as a kid. He has observed the criminal side and worked for the law. The experience is there. The primary showed that the majority of the public is on his side, but some voices have ramped up fear around the term restorative justice.

Restorative justice makes prisons less crowded with those convicted of nonviolent crimes, while imposing normal sentencings for violent crimes like murder and rape. The concept believes prison should be a last resort. It points towards community-based programs designed to deter and divert nonviolent criminals, reducing recidivism in the process. Bragg wants to eliminate mandatory minimums and opposes sentences of life without parole.

Bragg’s restorative justice plan, along with his promise to hold police accountable for misconduct and promote police transparency, have been labeled by conservative media and punditry as “pro-criminal.” Bragg would say that his policies on restorative justice are pro-society.

“I think it’s a term that’s been used elastically,” said Bragg. “They’re disagreeing with something that hasn’t been well-defined to them. Like, Critical Race Theory is purposefully ill-defined. I don’t think restorative justice has been so. I think it’s a term that’s been used in different ways by different people.

“We’ve got to talk about what it is…”

While restorative justice is the word of the day, Bragg also promised that he would prosecute white collar crimes the way they deserve to be prosecuted. How does that square up with restorative justice? Bragg directed us to cases where he caught owners of multi-million dollar businesses laundering drug cartel money and they were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.

“I don’t think that incarcerations, you know, is always the answer and I think we have reflexively gone to that,” said Bragg. “But I do think in areas of, particularly where that sort of greed is affecting retirees, pensions, you know, workers’ wages, I think we still want to always be thinking about does the punishment fit? Is it proportional? Does it advance the public interest?

“Just because someone is rich and has done something doesn’t mean we’re going to throw away the key.”

When it comes to current fears around violent crime, Bragg empathizes with New Yorkers, but he believes media headlines have sensationalized something that could be addressed quickly.

“I think there are those who say, like the sky is falling, it’s the end of the world,” said Bragg. “Or, you know, the commentary that I ‘love criminals.’ I don’t even know what that means, and it’s untethered to any of my policies. I got people in my family who have committed crimes, so I guess in that sense, maybe it’s literally so, but that’s not what they’re saying.

“They’re trying to foster this environment, so I think there are elements that are sensationalized, but I also think there are elements that it’s real.”

With the uptick in crime came the voice of New York City mayoral candidate Eric Adams. The former police captain joined Cuomo for a news conference in Brooklyn recently where Cuomo endorsed him. The duo outlined their plans to combat gun violence with Adams saying some people have hijacked the word “progressive” and saying that progressives “get things done.”

Activists will try to hold Bragg’s feet to the fire and keep him in check. In a statement after Bragg’s primary victory, VOCAL-NY’s Civil Rights Campaign Coordinator Keli Young said that talk of restorative justice is just talk and the organization will continue to fight on behalf of those unjustly incarcerated at the hands of the legal system.

“The office of the prosecutor is ultimately designed to cage people,” said Young. “Regardless of the outcome of this race, our work has always been, and will continue to be, to reduce the size and scope of the office. Alvin Bragg will be the first Black person to hold this role and while that is significant, it is also reflective of the deeply racist nature of the office and all of the work that needs to be done. It will be up to us…to continue to push for reforms that move us towards decarceration and ensure that Bragg treats all New Yorkers with care and compassion. 

“The Manhattan DA holds immense power in shaping our city’s criminal legal system, and we’ll be making sure Bragg follows through on commitments he made while campaigning, including vacating convictions for offenses the office no longer prosecutes as well as supporting community-led processes to hold police accountable,” concluded Young.

Bragg understands both sides of the law and the issues that come with it. He understands the push for fairer sentencing. He also understands those who are concerned about the uptick in crime in the city. Both of those subjects hit home…literally.

“Just the other day, I’m going to estimate a half a block from where I live, I had a friend who was shot at,” said Bragg, who still calls Harlem home. “So, you know, this is significant and urgent and we have to address it.

“But we have to address it wisely, based on the lessons of the past.”