A restorative moment leads to a Manhattan DA candidate’s call for restorative justice

Former prosecutor Lucy Lang is entering the crowded race with a mission to re-envision the office

In March, near the beginning of the pandemic, Lucy Lang contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In a scenario that has since befallen many families, Lang’s husband, parents, sister and her sister’s partner also fell ill. While they have all recovered, the experience was still a harrowing one for Lang, a 39-year-old former assistant district attorney for Manhattan, as she tended to her feverish mother and father during a moment when little was known about the deadly virus. 

A couple of months later, as demonstrations against police brutality delivered another shock to New York’s system, Lang — emboldened by her recovery and inspired by the protests — concluded that she would enter the race for Manhattan district attorney, announcing her candidacy in August. 

“A combination of the realization that life is short and that change is urgent compelled me to join the race,” she told Jewish Insider in a recent interview in Battery Park. “It was a result of the unique conflagration of circumstances that my family, the city and I experienced over the course of the spring and the summer.”

Lang had vaguely considered running in the past, but she firmly believes the time is right for a candidate like her as a number of district attorneys around the country push for progressive reforms to address racial bias, police violence, mass incarceration and other issues. 

A former career prosecutor, Lang — granddaughter of the late educational philanthropist Eugene Lang — advocates for a more humane approach to criminal justice, one she characterizes as lending more dignity to those who become enmeshed in the legal system. It’s a view she came by during 12 years in the Manhattan DA’s office during which she served under Robert Morgenthau and then Cyrus Vance, Jr., the current DA.

“I had the amazing luck to work with New Yorkers from all sorts of backgrounds who were victims and survivors of violent crime, of domestic violence, witnesses to terrible crimes and people who were charged with crimes,” Lang said. “At some point, I started to realize — I think once I became a parent myself — that I had become detached from the consequences of the decisions I was making every day.”

In 2018, Lang created a prison class in which incarcerated college students studied alongside district attorneys — a program that led to her appointment the same year as executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, founded with a seed investment from the district attorney’s asset forfeiture funds. 

“I spent the past few years working with prosecutors and communities across the country on reform issues geared toward ending mass incarceration and decreasing racial disparities in the system,” Lang said in explaining her justification for running. “It makes me uniquely situated to lead the implementation of overdue change in criminal justice in New York City.”

Isaac Scott, a formerly incarcerated pastor and visual artist, met Lang through her prison education initiative and believes her evolution with regard to the criminal justice system is commendable, particularly her willingness to work with people she would have prosecuted in the past. 

“She will foster a generation of folks who begin to look at folks who come into the courtroom very differently,” he said. “I think all of that will change under her leadership.”

Still, Lang is entering a crowded primary race in which she will have to distinguish herself from a number of candidates who are arguing in favor of reform, including Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former general counsel to the Brooklyn DA’s office, civil rights lawyer Janos Marton and Eliza Orlins, who took a leave of absence from the nonprofit Legal Aid Society so she could run for Manhattan DA. 

“I’m looking forward to having a robust dialogue with Ms. Lang about the issues that matter most to Manhattanites,” Orlins told JI. 

But while Lang touts her experience as evidence that she is uniquely equipped to run the DA’s office, Orlins sees a weakness. 

Eliza Orlins (Courtesy)

“As a public defender whose clients have faced the real consequences of Cy Vance and acolytes of his, like Lucy Lang, my perspective on where to take the office is quite different,” Orlins said. “My focus is on reforms that will undo a system that has consistently protected the privileged, while marginalizing and disenfranchising vulnerable people. Ms. Lang spent years as part of that system and will have to answer to New Yorkers about why she helped perpetuate it.”

For her part, Lang seeks to parry such jabs without directly addressing them. “I’m happy to talk about issues,” she said. “I’m not inclined to talk about people, whether they are my opponents or others. I believe that this can be a campaign about ideas in service of the city, and I’m committed to running my campaign that way.”

The former assistant DA declined to reveal whether she had spoken about her decision to run with her former boss, a Democrat who assumed office in 2010 and has not yet declared whether he will seek reelection.

Though Vance’s efforts to subpoena President Donald Trump’s tax returns have earned him notoriety, his tenure has come under scrutiny in recent years thanks in part to his decision, in 2015, not to pursue sexual abuse charges against Harvey Weinstein. Earlier in his run, Vance also opted not to indict Trump’s children for felony fraud, which has drawn criticism.

“There were meetings that occurred between well-heeled defense attorneys and senior members of the district attorney’s staff in which the line prosecutors and investigators who handled the cases were not present, and decisions were made,” Lang said of the cases. “I have no inside knowledge on any of those matters.”

Lang made sure to point out that she would not tolerate “even the appearance of impropriety” if elected to run the DA’s office. 

“I will not take backroom meetings with lawyers,” Lang continued. “They will follow a strict process to appeal decisions that are made at the line level, up through the bureau chiefs and above. And any conversations or meetings that occur will include the people who have handled the investigation on the ground who are best equipped to assess the case fairly with complete information.”

New York County District Attorney Cy Vance speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Monday, June 4, 2012. (Tim Roske/AP)

In describing her vision for the office, Lang emphasizes that she would collaborate with other city agencies with the goal of fostering community engagement. “In order to be effective and sustainable, criminal justice reform has to rely on other social service agencies,” said Lang, citing the New York City Housing Authority, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Education. 

Working with such agencies would, where appropriate, create “preventative measures” and “non-punitive responses,” she said. 

This approach, Lang told JI, differs from that of her first boss, Robert Morgenthau, the powerful prosecutor who presided over the Manhattan DA’s office for 35 years until his retirement in 2009. 

Lang warmly recalls her experience serving under Morgenthau, who died last year. “One of the remarkable things about Mr. Morgenthau, who was and is fondly known as ‘the Boss’ by everyone who served under him, is that he had a remarkable memory,” said Lang, recalling a lunch at Forlini’s in which she discussed a case she was working on in the appeals bureau. 

“When I saw him in the hall six months later, he greeted me by name, which is not a foregone conclusion in an office of 500 lawyers,” Lang told JI. “He asked me about that case very specifically and about a legal issue. This is representative of his leadership. He hired talented people and encouraged them to use their talents — but he did remember people, their issues, their concerns, and he fostered relationships in a way that, I think, all district attorneys should.”

Sitting on a park bench at the southern tip of Manhattan, overlooking the Hoboken skyline, Lang motioned to her right, noting that the nearby Museum of Jewish Heritage was an institution about which Morgenthau cared deeply. He sat on the museum’s board, and a wing is named after him. 

The museum also carries a special resonance for Lang, who is Jewish.

“It’s on my mind right now when I am thinking a lot about addressing mass incarceration,” said Lang, who visited the museum’s Auschwitz exhibit last year and was deeply moved. “My understanding of the challenges of mass incarceration are unquestionably informed by the legacy of the Holocaust and my identity as a Jewish person.”

Lang avers that her Jewish heritage influenced her to study the law. “The storytelling piece is the core of it,” she said. “What I loved about Hebrew school as a child was reading and retelling of stories. And a prosecutor’s job is to hear people’s stories and understand them and then to make sense out of stories that differ about the same thing.”

Formative, too, was an experience during law school when, Lang recalled, one of her childhood best friends was murdered by a brother who suffered from mental illness. 

“I watched her family struggle with the system, both as [the family] of the victim and the family of the person who had committed the crime,” Lang said. “I saw the ways in which the system really didn’t support them in either respect, and the reliance they felt on the prosecutor to try to help them find resolution and give them answers. That was part of what brought me to pursue a position at the district attorney’s office — a desire to serve my immediate community here in Manhattan.”

A community-based strategy also guides Lang’s views on hate crimes — including antisemitic attacks, which have recently seen a sharp uptick in New York. “I would invest in expanding the existing hate crime unit to not just prosecute hate crimes as appropriate,” said Lang, “but to really go into communities to engage people to ensure that people are comfortable reporting.”

“It’s very hard to speak in broad strokes about these things,” Lang added, “and I think that goes to why the district attorney’s office needs, for lack of a better term, a more expansive menu of options in how individual cases are handled. That can include restorative justice options, it can include alternatives to incarceration, it can include diverting cases entirely to community-based organizations with pro-social supportive services. It can include educational options. This calls for a model that relies tremendously on connection with and collaboration with other social service agencies.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said that he is encouraged by Lang’s approach to hate crimes. 

“She has a very nuanced view in which she is not going to allow racism and antisemitism to be separated,” Kula, who has worked with Lang on developing ideas around restorative justice, told JI. “By that I mean you’re not going to be able to fight racism without addressing antisemitism. The issue is how to insure that these forms of hate do not get disconnected.”

To hammer out her policies, Lang said she had convened an advisory committee that includes faith leaders as well as those who have served time in prison. “That really informs the way we think about problem solving,” she said. 

Lang believes the Manhattan DA has a unique role given that the position has jurisdiction over Wall Street. “There’s tremendous opportunity to ensure that people who commit economic crimes are held accountable,” she said. “That would be a core tenet of my administration.”

“There’s just so many interesting ways in which Manhattan is different, but another is how densely populated Manhattan is,” Lang continued. “It’s the richness of interaction across those blocks that makes Manhattan so unique and inspiring — and it’s why there’s so much potential for Manhattan to be a leader in transformative criminal justice, which the country categorically needs right now.”

Lisa Lang (Matthew Kassel)

Lang thought back to a transformative instance in her own recent history — Passover in April, which she described as an “intense” period because her family was recovering from the coronavirus. 

But it was also an uplifting and hopeful moment, as she spent time with her parents making elaborate meals and producing an original haggadah for the Seder. Her father made a “rhyming afikoman hunt” that she joked they should market. “It was brilliant.” 

The meal, Lang said, was restorative — and a factor that contributed to her decision to run for DA during an uncertain time.

“The feeling of sort of being on the right path was part of what emerged from the pandemic and the summer, and that was what compelled me to make this leap,” Lang said of her candidacy. “It’s a leap of faith. You know, it’s-data driven. It’s based on polling. But it is, ultimately, a leap of faith.”

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