Public Defender and Reality TV Star Eliza Orlins Wants to Clean Up the Manhattan DA’s Office

Theodore Hamm Jul 29, 2020

Orlins. Photo: Juan Patino Photography.

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

Eliza Orlins has been a public defender with the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan since 2009. She is also known for her performances in the reality-TV shows Survivor and the Amazing Race

Orlins, a Manhattan native, has used her national platform to advocate for criminal justice reform. Her extended network of supporters also helped generate the substantial fundraising numbers Orlins’ campaign reported last week. 

How would your experience as a public defender influence the changes you’d implement in the DA’s office?

My experience as a public defender is what drives me to seek change for Manhattan. I’ve spent over a decade pushing back against a system that’s designed to systematically disenfranchise so many: Black and brown people, lower-income people, LGBTQIA+ folks, sex workers, those from marginalized communities. In short, the non-powerful and disconnected. It’s not that the system is broken, the problem is that it’s working exactly the way a rigged system is supposed to.

If someone is locked up for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, or even 3 days, they’re exponentially more likely to re-offend or get rearrested.

As a public defender, I took on Cy Vance’s office for a decade in defense of some of New York’s most vulnerable people. That’s why I know the only way we can change the system is by changing the DA. With a former public defender as DA, we’ll be able to end cash bail for real as well as finally end the system of wealth-based detention, which does not keep us safe. We will decriminalize sex work and low-level drug offenses. And we’ll provide mental health and substance abuse treatment rather than locking up the afflicted. As a former PD, I will always recognize that, based on my experience representing thousands of people charged with crimes, if someone is locked up for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, or even 3 days, they’re exponentially more likely to re-offend or get rearrested.
How would that same experience influence your handling of police accountability issues?

The videos of the NYPD that we have seen recently are horrifying, but I know from working on the inside as a PD they’re not an aberration. Let’s face it: These injustices won’t stop happening until we throw the people in charge out of office.

As a public defender for over a decade, I’ve seen far too many instances of abuse by police officers. Holding police accountable is a decision that starts at the top. The sad fact is that Cy Vance routinely values bad police officers over the people they discriminate against, bully and abuse. 

I will be a very different DA. For starters, I will take it seriously when police abuse the public’s trust. And I’ll always hold police accountable. Were I serving as DA today, I would have already had officers like those we’ve seen in videos investigated and arrested. Within my first 30 days in office, I plan to appoint a special task force to handle all police prosecutions and to hold police accountable. It’s time we stop shielding police officers who abuse their power. 

What’s your take on Vance’s handling of the Weinstein case? It certainly seems like prosecutors had a very sympathetic judge.

It’s a sad and powerful example of why it’s time for a change here in Manhattan. Cy Vance’s Manhattan is a place where the rich and powerful are given special breaks, while the poor and people of color are punished instead of protected.  

Vance already had categorial evidence of crimes committed by Harvey Weinstein as many as six years ago — and yet, he did nothing. Think of all the women whose lives Weinstein continued to turn upside down in the years Vance did nothing. That changes on day one when I take office.

Has Vance implemented any meaningful changes in the office during his three terms? And how would you push back against the inevitable internal resistance to change?

There are multiple examples of Cy Vance promising meaningful change and not delivering, but I’m more concerned about the changes he has made. He has changed the lives of millions of New Yorkers for the worse over the past 11 years.

He made promises of change starting with his campaign in 2008 where he promised open file discovery and then never turned over evidence. As a public defender for the past decade, I routinely received discovery on the morning of trial. Vance fought against discovery reform.

He had press conferences promising he was no longer prosecuting marijuana cases and that wasn’t true either.
Over the past decade, we’ve had the same unsanitary, unhealthy conditions in our jails — but COVID19 is now exacerbating them. It has never been more important to talk about these issues. This affects every single one of us.
Coronavirus doesn’t stop at the prison walls. You may not care about the folks that are incarcerated, but the virus doesn’t care which side of the prison walls you happen to be on. The more people it spreads to the more of us are in danger. Period. Full stop.
This is typical of Vance’s New York: In his commitment to incarceration, he’s making everyone less safe.
There will be people in the DA’s office who won’t fit with this new approach, sure. But I believe that as we transition, a lot of prosecutors will be surprised by how much they like the new focus of their jobs. They can stop trying to use the criminal punishment bureaucracy to target marginalized communities and focus on perpetrators of real harm.
DA policies have a massive impact on this. We must decarcerate. And we must do it now. 

Theodore Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics is now available.

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