Manhattan DA Contender Janos Marton Fought the Law on the Outside, Now He Wants to Fight It From Within

The civil rights attorney helped lead the campaign to close Rikers and defended Occupy Wall Street protesters. Next, he plans to take on corruption from the other side of the courtroom.

Theodore Hamm Jul 6, 2020

Note: This the second in a series of interviews with 2021 contenders in the race for Manhattan District Attorney.

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Janos Marton. Photo: Courtesy.

Attorney and activist Janos Marton has been a key player in many of the most high-profile events the city has seen over the past decade. He was a member of the Occupy Wall Street legal team, special counsel to the Moreland Commission that investigated corruption in the Cuomo administration and a leader in the #CloseRikers campaign.

Marton, whose parents are immigrants from Hungary and India, was born and raised on the Upper West Side. He is one of five current challengers in the 2021 race to replace Cy Vance as Manhattan DA. 

You recently stated that as DA you wouldn’t prosecute protest arrests in which the only charge is obstructing governmental administration or resisting arrest. I think most of our readers would agree with that position — but can you explain how that will stop the NYPD from making such arrests? 

The short answer is that no DA, and apparently not even a mayor, can single-handedly stop this police department from doing things like arresting and attacking protesters. 

But as someone who sued the NYPD in court and won, someone who has investigated the governor as special counsel to the Moreland Commission and also won against Mayor Bill de Blasio in the campaign to close Rikers Island, I’m the right person to take on the NYPD. We’ll start by dismissing their bogus arrests. And if that doesn’t stop their behavior, we’ll start investigating up the chain and figure out who is authorizing the deprivation of peoples’ liberty. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. 

What are some other ways you would rein in the NYPD’s power? 

This issue is personal to me. Growing up a young man of color in ’90s New York, when Mayor Giuliani gave the police free rein, I was subjected to harassment, including stop and frisk. I was arrested and jailed. It made me angry, but it also spurred me to become an activist. I’ve been working on police reform issues on and off for my entire career as a civil rights lawyer, as policy counsel to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and as a longtime ally of Communities United for Police Reform.  

We’ve released the most detailed plan in the race on how we’re going to tackle police accountability. It includes:

  • Establishing an independent unit to handle cases of police misconduct, on and off duty.
  • Investigating systematic issues at NYPD, like lying on the stand.
  • Looking at domestic violence issues in the department.
  • Declining to prosecute certain low-level offenses.
  • Promoting transparency in our office and establishing a Community Advisory Board.

How can the DA’s office genuinely help steer defendants with substance-abuse issues toward treatment? Drug courts don’t seem designed to that.  

We need to be honest about drugs and drug policy if we’re actually going to help people and end cycles of harm. Growing up here, I’ve known many people who have used drugs and sold drugs. I knew the War on Drugs was a sham since I was a teenager. That’s why this January we released our comprehensive plan, Public Health First, which calls for ending the War on Drugs here in New York and focusing on drug use as a public health issue, using a harm reduction lens. 

Under our plan, we won’t criminalize low-level possession of any drug. When we encounter people who are harming others through their use, we will steer them toward treatment and crucially, we will be exceedingly patient on the road to recovery. I’ve lost a close friend to substance use and it was painful to see how hard it was for him to break the cycle of addiction. This is where Drug Courts fall short. You can’t use a carrot and stick approach if the stick is prison time for a dirty urine test. It’s not going to work. Harm reduction measures have proven to be far more successful and we’ll embrace that approach, partnering with the relevant community groups and public health agencies.  

Finally, we can’t talk about ending the War on Drugs if we don’t get rid of the Office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor. This is a Rockefeller Drug Law vestige, unique to New York: a prosecutor literally stuck in 1990s drug policy who has jurisdiction in drug cases over the five boroughs. I would defund the position by withdrawing Manhattan DA resources and lawyers and call on the legislature to abolish the position. I’m the only candidate who has made that call. 

In her 2019 campaign, Tiffany Cabán talked about going after bad landlords and targeting various forms of civil fraud. The Manhattan DA’s office deals with many more civil cases than any of its city counterparts. What would be your approach?  

Growing up in a rent-controlled apartment was the only way my single mom was able to raise three kids in the city. I’ve seen the dirty tricks landlords play to get rid of old tenants in order to lure market-rate new ones. That behavior can be illegal, whether we’re talking about fraud or criminal harassment. Our office would be absolutely vigilant on that issue. 

Two other ways to protect regular folks are central to our campaign. One is wage theft. More money is stolen by employers via wage theft than all burglary, robbery and petty larceny crimes combined, but since the victims are often undocumented workers, little is done about it. We’ll change that. Lastly, I have a history of taking on political corruption. When you look at who carries weight in the city, it’s still big-monied interests like real estate controlling too many of our politicians. While there are plenty of legal ways for them to throw their weight around, when they cross the line, our revamped Political Corruption Unit will be waiting for them.

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