With Joe Biden’s picks for the cabinet creating a diverse administration, America now has a boost of new faces in positions of power. The identities of people in positions of power increasingly reflect America’s diverse population. There is now greater demand for the representation of different groups in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.
Lucy Lang is one of eight candidates for district attorney (DA) of Manhattan. She is running alongside six women for a position that has never previously been held by a female. As a former assistant district attorney and an executive director at John Jay’s Institute for Innovation and Prosecution, Lang possesses a strong knowledge of New York law as well as a deep understanding of fundamental issues in the criminal justice system.
Innovative initiatives such as the college-in-prison course establish Lang as a leader in criminal justice reform and an agent of change in upholding racial and gender equity. Her dedication to the many different communities of New York is unwavering and her hunger for change in the system is seemingly insatiable.
Now running a political campaign from home with two young children during the New York winter and the pandemic, Lang is determined to spread her message.
An Interview with Lucy Lang
In what ways has your career, thus far, led you to run for DA of Manhattan?
As a national criminal justice reform leader, a New York City parent and a former assistant district attorney, I know that the role of the district attorney encompasses far more than prosecution alone. It requires deep investment in work alongside communities and prioritizing prevention, healing, and rehabilitation.
The next Manhattan district attorney must take a 360- degree-view of this system and everyone it touches: crime victims, incarcerated New Yorkers, as well as the families and communities we all live in. This really hit home for me when I handled a terrible case a few years ago.
On a snowy Super Ball Sunday, two masked gunmen came out from behind parked cars on upper Broadway and opened fire, hitting five people and killing one, who was the father of a 3-year-old. I investigated the case over many months and became close to the mother of the young man who was killed. Ultimately, the two gunmen were identified, arrested, and tried for the murder; the jury returned a verdict of ‘guilty.’
The day after the verdict, I called the mother of the young man who had been killed and asked her ‘how do you feel?’ She said: ‘I slept all night for the first time since my son was killed but when I woke up, all I could think about were the moms of those two boys,’ referring to the two men who had just been convicted of murdering her son.
Her incredible empathy really illuminated the unique perspective that women can bring to the criminal justice system. That motivated me to create the first-of-its-kind college in prison course, that brings assistant district attorneys inside New York’s prisons to work on criminal justice policy reforms alongside incarcerated New Yorkers.
It is this model of creating change, informed by the unique sensibility that women can bring to problem-solving, that motivates me to run to be Manhattan’s first female district attorney.
The training class that you created to help incarcerated citizens could be considered revolutionary in legal education. If you were to be elected, would you want to expand or implement this training in some capacity?
I have currently trained about 80 assistant district attorneys in Manhattan through that program. I will make it required legal training for all attorneys and an optional training for other staff members of the [Manhattan] District Attorney’s Office. It has already been replicated at Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, and is in the process of being replicated elsewhere nationally.
The training is a gold standard for community-based legal education in prosecutors offices. It is central to implementing the culture change that’s necessary for the [Manhattan] District Attorney’s Office to become an engine for dismantling mass incarceration and addressing racial injustice in our system.
With the surge of Black Lives Matter movements across the country this last year, there have been more calls for police and prison reform and even abolition. As a leader in criminal justice reform, what are some misconceptions about these calls to action?
Each one of the calls to action that you identify really encapsulates a myriad of different positions on the issues. There’s a misconception that the criminal justice system is one thing, when in fact it is this sprawling set of many systems that were never designed to work functionally together with one another. It’s a set of systems that includes state courts, federal courts, local district attorney’s offices, federal district attorney’s offices, attorneys general, defense bars, social service agencies, departments of corrections; all of these different systems—and the dissipated nature of them—is part of what contributes to the dysfunctional nature of the system.
Each one of the exciting and overdue movements that we have seen gathering energy in recent years are often multiple movements built into one. There are important intersections between Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, Black Trans Lives Matter and any number of the other movements getting increased attention and motivating change.
I think it’s incredibly exciting to see how much of a public appetite there is to take on these really complicated issues that have deep roots in structural racism and gender hierarchies in American culture and date back to this nation’s founding.
Throughout your candidacy, you’ve talked a lot about the importance of racial and gender equity. How would you like to achieve racial and gender equity in the criminal justice system? Where would you start?
I have a racial justice plan on my website. Amongst the things that I think are necessary, the first step towards a system that emphasizes racial justice is simply shrinking the system itself.
So: declining to prosecute cases that just don’t belong in the court system. Diverting cases like substance abuse and mental health challenges out of the court system and into public health systems or clinical, community-based offerings that help provide people with support services, rather than punitive responses. Shrinking the amount of contact between police and communities in unnecessary instances in order to decrease the likelihood of a tragic incident. Ensuring police accountability when incidences of brutality or misconduct occur.
All of these are steps toward achieving a more racially-just system, but they also require building a mission-aligned workforce that reflects the diversity of the population that the district attorney serves.
You’ve worked towards disrupting gender hierarchies. You’ve advocated for the word ‘consent’ to be defined by New York penal law. How would you want it to be defined? What changes could come from having the word ‘consent’ both defined and officially recognized by New York penal law?
Right now, in the absence of a definition of ‘consent,’ the onus is really on the survivor, because what matters is the intent of the person who committed an act of gender-based violence intended, not the experience of the survivor. That is one reason it really needs to change.
Interestingly, in both the Bill Cosby case and the [Harvey] Weinstein case, the jury asked the judge about how to define consent (it’s common for juries to inquire). The judge replied by saying ‘use your common sense.’ That’s not how we would reply to a request from a jury for the definition of a word if that word was defined by the law.
Defining consent is a way to enfranchise the experience of victims, and no state currently does that. Consent should be defined as freely-given, knowledgeable, informed, and ongoing agreement.
It’s so important for victims to feel supported and heard in these cases. What would it mean to you to become Manhattan’s first female district attorney?
Becoming district attorney will mean being in a position to work alongside communities most impacted by the criminal justice system. That includes survivors of gender-based and intimate partner violence, who have traditionally been silenced or marginalized; it includes people who have been victimized by the system’s excessive sentences and undue reliance on incarceration.
It will be a privilege to be a part of collaborating with those most impacted to usher in the next generation of a transformed local justice system that prizes the dignity of every community member, every person the system touches, and every person that the district attorney is sworn to serve.
What advice do you have for other women looking to become first-time political candidates?
For me, that question is very much impacted by the fact that I am running a campaign during the pandemic with two small children who are variously in and out of school.
The best advice is to really believe in it; to be mission-driven, and to build a team that shares that commitment to mission. Having the support and love of family and community is absolutely necessary to dedicating the time and passion required to run a campaign of this magnitude.
How has the pandemic impacted your campaign?
I have nothing to compare it to because I’ve never run for office before. The great thing about it is that I wake up energized every morning because I really believe that we are at a moment where transformative change is possible in the Manhattan criminal justice system.
The challenging part is being largely limited to these four walls; or only being able to meet in small groups in outdoor locations, unable to see people’s smiling faces behind their masks. It can be difficult to have the depth of connection that we’re used to having when meeting in person.
One of the unexpected benefits of it, for a working parent on the campaign trail, is that it’s possible to go from a community meeting on the Lower East Side to a democratic club meeting in Washington Heights in a matter of seconds; from Zoom Room to Zoom Room. From my perspective, with a 5 and 6-year-old child, that means the difference between finding the time to read one book to them or to sing one quick song, and not seeing them at all. I take that as a great blessing.
Another positive for me is that, since we’re all home so much, my children get to see work that I’m doing right now. For a 5 and 6-year-old, they’re incredibly excited about a political campaign and being a part of transformative change to make the city better. For them to see their mom running for office
in a way that they wouldn’t if they were at school and I was at a campaign office—is setting an example for them that I couldn’t have imagined. I hope it will be inspiring for my daughter in terms of what is possible for her, and inspiring to my son in terms of what’s possible for him and also how he can support women and other people in his life. I think that my own partner’s support for me, and the fact that my children see how much their dad does to make their lives run while I’m doing this is a great example of coparenting and sharing of responsibilities.
Everybody is struggling with this “new normal” in different ways and it’s important to find community, unity and solace in the people around you. What can the public do right now to support your candidacy and your cause?
It all comes down to reaching Manhattan democratic voters who will turn out to vote in the June 22 primary. So, voting for me because of the shared commitment to dignity, equity and safety is the most important thing the public can do on June 22.
In order to help me connect with more voters, people can support my candidacy financially or by volunteering to phone banks. They can sign up on my website to support us in all of those ways.
Also, sharing my message on social media (@lucylangnyc) and communicating with friends is tremendously helpful to my connection with people who care about the issues that are so critically important to our city right now.