Manhattan's newly installed, George Soros-backed district attorney this week ordered prosecutors not to seek life without parole sentences for murderers, terrorists, and cop killers.
Alvin Bragg issued a memo on Jan. 3 that forbade staff from seeking life without parole sentences and broadly discouraged them from seeking sentences beyond 20 years. A $1 million contribution from Soros helped Bragg secure a narrow 4-point victory last June in the Democratic primary.
"My commitment to making incarceration a matter of last resort is immutable," Bragg's memo reads.
Bragg's election is the biggest victory yet for Soros and his Justice and Public Safety PAC, which has helped elect soft-on-crime candidates in Chicago, Philadelphia, and suburban Washington, D.C. Manhattan is uniquely visible as the economic and media capital of the nation, meaning Bragg's new approach—and Soros's criminal justice philosophy—will attract attention nationally and around the world.
Crimes that qualify for life without parole sentences in New York state penal law include first-degree murder, terrorism, criminal possession of chemical and biological weapons, assassination of police officers, and molesting and murdering a child.
Defendants in those cases would likely serve prison terms in the range of 20 years or less, if Bragg's office pursues incarceration at all. Under the new policy, the maximum sentence Manhattan prosecutors are advised to seek in cases that can't be reviewed by a parole board is 20 years. There is a carveout for "exceptional circumstances," which are not defined in the memo.
The memo leaves open the possibility that murderers or violent assailants otherwise eligible for life without parole could qualify for early release, provided the victim or a victim's loved one goes along.
"In exceptionally serious cases such as homicides where lengthy periods of incarceration are justified, ADAs shall consider the use of restorative justice as a mitigating factor in determining the length of the sentence, only when victims or their loved ones consent," the memo reads.
There are between 200 and 300 individuals serving life without parole sentences in New York as of this writing. Another 10,000 are serving life terms but are eligible for release in the future. Among them is David Berkowitz, the notorious "Son of Sam" serial killer who was sentenced to six life sentences for a string of shootings in New York City between 1976 and 1977. Another is Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980 and is eligible for parole. He was prosecuted by Bragg's office.
Critics like Bragg say such sentences are the functional equivalent of capital punishment, calling it "death by incarceration."
About half of states have banned life without parole sentences outright for juveniles, and a series of Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the range of minor defendants who qualify.
The Manhattan prosecutor's office is one for long tenures. Just three individuals, Democrats all, have served as district attorney in an official capacity since 1942.
The office is also politically salient because of its jurisdiction. Bragg's predecessor Cyrus Vance led a sweeping investigation into the Trump Organization's financial practices that reached the Supreme Court. Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan's DA from 1975 to 2010, was a legend in legal circles and mentor to numerous prominent lawyers, including Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Update 11:03 a.m.: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that the Justice and Public Safety PAC did not donate to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.