The first time Darcel Clark left the Bronx was also the first time anyone from her family attended university. And before she became the borough’s chief prosecutor, she was a lifelong resident, going to city public schools throughout her youth and living in the same NYCHA building her father maintained. So she came back home, with a political science degree from Boston College and a J.D. from Howard University. It just made sense.

“When I left Howard, I guess I could have gone anywhere,” said Clark. “But I grew up in the Bronx, that’s who made me who I was.”

She got her start in the legal world as an assistant D.A. in the same office she now heads. But it was the late ’80s, a time when maximum sentences and overzealous policing ran rampant. Clark is candid about the roles of prosecutors played back then. 

“When we look back, that’s what was part of mass incarceration,” she said. “As a person who was part of that era, we thought that was what was keeping the public safe, because that’s what they taught us to do. I know better now, after 13 years as an assistant D.A. and rising up to a deputy bureau chief.”

Today, Clark’s Conviction Integrity Bureau regularly exonerates wrongfully convicted New Yorkers. As district attorney, she works with community partners to bring in resources uptown and applies affordable housing, employment and mental health awareness as forms of crime prevention. And Clark says she wears many hats as D.A.—her job ranges from prosecuting murderers to talking to kids about bullying. She’s served as Bronx County district attorney since 2015, when she stepped away as an associate justice of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, a cushy elected position. 

“A judgeship [is a] 14-year term,” said State Sen. Jamaal Bailey. “I’m not sure where she was within that term, but that is a major sacrifice of ‘job security’ to aspire to do the right thing.” 

Before her time as district attorney, Clark spent a decade-and-a-half on the bench, originally appointed as a criminal court judge by ex-mayor Rudy Guiliani. She laughs, recalling her journey as a lifelong Democrat only to catch her break thanks to the Republican figure. Bailey, who represents the 36th district and considers Clark a constituent, says the district attorney owns a special connection with the Bronx—one only possibly developed as a native daughter of the northmost borough. 

“There’s no issue that people in my community have gone through that I can’t understand because I am one of the residents of the community as well,” said Clark. “I didn’t just drop in here and take this job. I grew up with the very same people that have a lot of these problems. When my neighbors hear gunshots, guess who else hears them? I hear them, too.”

She’s also a trailblazer, the first female Bronx County D.A. and the first woman of color ever to serve as district attorney in the state of New York. 

“Darcel Clark represents that glass ceiling breaker,” said Bailey. “There’s another young, Black woman prosecutor out there, watching what she does and now that she knows that’s possible, it’s real, right?”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w 

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