Clark, Cohen vie for borough’s most complex job, Bronx DA, in Dem primary

For the first time in the position’s 109-year history, two women — incumbent Darcel Clark and challenger Tess Cohen — will vie for The Bronx district attorney’s Democratic nomination.
Photo ET Rodriguez/courtesy Tess Cohen; image courtesy Robbie Sequeira

With the exception of the largely ceremonial Bronx borough president’s position, the Bronx district attorney is the foremost boroughwide elected office. And for the first time in the position’s 109-year history, two women — incumbent Darcel Clark and challenger Tess Cohen — will vie for the Democratic nomination in a summer primary.

Clark, who is looking to win a third term in office, has seen the gradual perception change of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office since she first started there in 1986 as an assistant district attorney. Under then-District Attorney Mario Merola, the Bronx’s approach to the crack epidemic in the 1980s was to “lock people up, hit them with every charge and push for maximum sentences.”

Clark — the first and only Black woman in the state to hold a district attorney post since her election in 2015 — said her approach to the role has been one of empathetic leadership, a difference from her predecessors and the mistakes learned by hyper incarceration.

“That’s not the way it should be. A DA should be somebody that the community can trust whether they are the victim of a crime, whether they’re accused of a crime or whether they’re a community member that needs the protection of the district attorney,” she said. “As women, we deal with things and we lead with a little more compassion, but most importantly, it’s the empathy that really lends itself into how I continue to do this work.”

South Bronx native Tess Cohen spent more than eight years as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she was assigned to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. For Cohen, criminal justice is in need of massive systemic reform and she wants to make the Bronx DA’s office a place that isn’t just reserved for punishing offenders, but is engaging in community centered work, protecting the rights of those impacted by crime and ensuring fairness for those accused.

The interior of the Bronx District Attorney's Office is seen in the South Bronx on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.
The interior of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office as seen on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. Photo Camille Botello

“I want the DA’s office to feel like a place that residents can trust. That it’s a resource that they can turn to when a specific problem is happening in their community,” said Cohen, who joined the city-based ZMO Law, a criminal defense firm in 2021. “Whether it’s a community that’s dealing with a spike in violence or a specific legal matter they need information on, I want them to come to the DA’s office and trust that they’re going to be listened to, and that the DA’s office is going to do everything they can to help solve their problems.”

The Bronx DA job isn’t an enviable one given the amount of deficits the office has encountered in recent years, coupled with the borough’s 44% spike in crime since 2021 and an acute backlog in court cases.

The office is under resourced in comparison to the city’s other DA’s offices. Even with the office’s budget being doubled to a baseline of $11 million since Clark took office, the Manhattan DA, by comparison, has had an annual baseline budget of $169 million.

The Bronx DA’s office has also seen its staffing levels rapidly decline over the past decade.

Between 2014 and 2020, the Bronx suffered the highest attrition rate among all other New York City DA’s offices – with exception of the much-smaller Richmond County – with nearly 16% of Bronx assistant district attorneys departing over that time span.

Clark’s office lost 96 lawyers and 51 professional staffers during the 2021 fiscal year, and up to 104 attorneys and 90 staffers by April 2022.

“It’s about dealing with the hand you’re dealt,” said Clark, 60. “So if I got a bad hand, am I just gonna fold? No, I’m not gonna fold. I’m going to build coalitions, advocate for my borough and for this office to improve outcomes for the Bronx.”

While low pay was a factor in the mass exodus from the Bronx, both Clark and Cohen point blame at New York’s 2019 discovery statue – included in a package tied to the oft-discussed bail reform law – which the Manhattan Institute says, “crippled the state’s criminal justice system” and forced district attorneys’ offices encumbered with onerous paperwork to triage cases and caused judicial harm for both victims of crime as well as criminal offenders.

Cohen, 35, believes that despite the understaffed nature of the DA’s office and the state’s discovery laws, the district attorney position should be one of reform and creativity.

“I think that discovery is having way more effect on the criminal justice system than any other talking point like bail reform,” said Cohen. “But my big but here is, it does not have to be that way. People charged with crimes deserve not to have trials by surprise, which is what’s happening in New York, because of the most conservative, least defense friendly discovery laws in the country.”

Nineteen people died in the city’s custody at Rikers Island in 2022 – the highest death rate since 2013. File photo

What to do about Rikers?

Another unenviable task of the Bronx DA position is the office’s jurisdictional oversight of the embattled Rikers Island complex, which is housed on an island in the East River, and the Department of Corrections (DOC) officials who work there.

More than 80% of the Rikers population have not been convicted of a crime, and some have been awaiting a trial for years.

Legal experts from the Bronx Defenders told the Bronx Times that the Bronx DA’s biggest role as it pertains to Rikers Island is population reduction, which can be controlled through plea offers, bail-setting and alternatives to incarceration.

The plan to close Rikers  — which housed more than 5,500 inmates daily in fiscal year 2022 — calls for the city’s jail population to drop to 3,300 and be replaced by four borough-based jails by 2027. Construction on the new borough-based jails, with the Bronx one planned for Mott Haven, has already begun.

Clark and Cohen both advocate for a timely closure of Rikers Island. Clark is vehemently opposed to the siting of the Mott Haven Jail, opting for the borough’s jail to be in close proximity to the Bronx Courthouse on the Grand Concourse, making it easier for intake, transfer and court proceedings.

The Bronx DA can also advocate for improved conditions at the facility, including better health care, access to mental health services and more humane treatment, as well conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct or abuse by corrections officers or other staff members.

Cohen says that under the current administration there have rarely been any consequences for guards accused of abuse and criminal neglect of the Rikers inmate population, despite video evidence.

“When those photos of the conditions at Rikers broke, it was a real moment where we started talking about Rikers really loudly, and then unfortunately, it died down,” Cohen said. “I think people need to understand the visuals of how bad (Rikers) is, and this office should bring charges against those responsible when necessary.”

Cohen pledges on her first day in office to review the case of each person currently held at Rikers and seek release for those who do not pose a threat to the community.

District Attorney Darcel Clark at a City Council oversight hearing in 2021. Photo John McCarten/NYC Council

In 2021, Clark’s office indicted 37 cases involving allegations of attacks by inmates against DOC staff.

Clark, however, said that a slew of leadership changes at the DOC — four commissioners have been appointed during her tenure — and at times, noncompliance with subpoenas and investigatory demands from her office have complicated her approach to the Rikers crisis.

Clark said each decision she makes as it pertains to sentences, plea bargaining or alternatives to incarceration has to be rooted in “fairness.” Clark’s Conviction Integrity Bureau has regularly worked to exonerate wrongfully convicted New Yorkers during her tenure, she said.

“As the DA, I’m gonna make sure that I’m fair in my decision-making, whether it’s to charge and make sure that those charges are fair,” she said. “Just because I can charge everything that’s in the penal law doesn’t mean that I have to. I’m going to be fair in the evidence that I present. I’m going to be fair and any plea bargaining that I do, I’m gonna make sure that I turn over all the evidence to make sure that I’m doing this job ethically.”

The Bronx DA primary is scheduled for June 27, and will not use the ranked-choice method for voting, since it’s a countywide position. The DA position is elected to serve four-year terms and brings in an annual salary of $190,000.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.