When a young Black man is arrested for carrying a weapon, the only potential that many people see is the potential for murder and mayhem. Their kneejerk impulse is to lock him up for as long as possible. So, I wasn’t surprised by the outrage in some quarters when Manhattan’s new district attorney, Alvin Bragg, announced that he would not automatically seek incarceration in every case of illegal weapons possession. But my perspective is different. When I hear DA Bragg speak about second chances for young men caught with weapons, I hear him talking about me.

When I was 16 years old, I was arrested for possession of a deadly weapon—in my case, a machete. If I were growing up today it very likely would have been a gun. It was my first arrest, but I was facing a felony conviction and a lifetime of severely constrained opportunity. As a Black man with no high school diploma and a felony record, my odds of experiencing homelessness and repeated incarceration would have been high.

Fortunately, the judge assigned to my case saw more potential in me than I saw in myself at the time. Judge Bruce Wright—derisively dubbed “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce” by the police union—told me to write a report on why I was doing what I was doing. At the time I was working at the National Council of Negro Women and my boss spoke in court on my behalf. In the end, Judge Wright dismissed the charge, and my life followed a different path.

I joined the Army and served my country as a military police officer in Germany. I finished my GED. When I returned to the States, I went to college. I got an internship with a young assemblyman named Denny Farrell, and I have stayed in public service ever since. Today, I have the honor of serving in the assembly seat that was formerly held by my mentor. I’ve passed laws to keep our community safe from gun violence and support victims of crime. But I’ve never forgotten that I was almost a victim of a legal system that too often defaults to harsh punishment without seeing the potential in a young person of color to be something other than a threat or a number in the system.

I don’t want to come off as boastful. The point is not that I’m special—quite the opposite. My point is that unless someone like DA Bragg (or in my case, Judge Wright) is willing to examine each charged person as an individual and consider what safety, accountability, and fairness truly require in each case, we risk wasting the potential of thousands of young people who could otherwise contribute positively to our community.

Neither I nor DA Bragg believes that incarceration is never necessary or appropriate, including for weapons possession. As lifelong uptown residents, we know all too well the pain suffered by victims of violence. Sometimes it’s necessary to separate someone from the community to keep our families safe. But a district attorney’s responsibility is to examine each case and each accused person holistically and decide—knowing the tremendous human and financial costs of incarceration—whether that is truly the best option, or if there is a better way to hold someone accountable and protect the community in the long term.

As our new mayor, Eric Adams, often says, we expend enormous resources pulling kids out of the river once they fall in, but we need much more investment upstream to keep them from falling in to begin with. I got caught doing something stupid on a summer night and thank God it didn’t ruin the rest of my life. But what if there had been a sports program, or a jobs program, or a mentorship for me before I got into trouble? We must invest in prevention as well as responding to crime.

And remember that while a young man carrying a gun has already fallen in the river, poverty and violence are intergenerational. If we divert that young person from prison to education and a career, imagine what that means for his kids, and for the future safety and wellbeing of our community. That is DA Bragg’s vision, and I am proud to support a district attorney who sees in today’s youth what Judge Wright saw in me.

Assemblyman Al Taylor has represented the 71st Assembly District––including Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood––since 2017.

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