‘Very Progressive Prosecutor’ Tess Cohen Looks to Oust Bronx DA Darcel Clark

Cohen vows to investigate abuses at Rikers, prosecute dirty landlords.

Theodore Hamm Apr 26, 2023

Few, if any, criminal-justice activists were surprised to see Bronx district attorney Darcel Clark at the forefront of the effort to roll-back Albany’s landmark 2019 discovery reforms. 

Prior to becoming DA in 2015, Clark, a Bronx judge, rubber stamped no less than six extensions requested by prosecutors in Kalief Browder’s low-level theft case. A day after one of Clark’s actions, Browder attempted suicide while back at Rikers. 

Bronx DA Darcel Clark. Bronx District Attorney’s Office

Although she claimed not to remember Browder’s case, Clark explained during the 2015 campaign that it was a “tragedy that should never have happened.” Early in her first year in office, Clark promoted the prosecutor who handled Browder’s case, Peter Kennedy, to lead the DA’s Computer Forensics Lab, bumping his salary from $90,000 to $130,000. 

Seven years later, Clark is now pushing changes that would negatively impact the low-income defendants sent to Rikers because they can’t afford bail. She is trying to extend the clock for prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense, in an effort to circumvent New York’s speedy trial provisions (and coerce more guilty pleas). Kennedy, meanwhile, remains in the office and now makes $190,000. 

“It’s disgusting that Clark is pushing the legislature to gut [reforms] passed in part in Kalief’s name so that she and other DAs can lock more Kaliefs in jail for months and years in the same way,” states Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother. 

The Bronx DA also has jurisdiction over crimes committed at Rikers. Since 2020, only six of the 50-plus Rikers prosecutions announced by Clark’s office have named corrections officers as the defendants. 

Tess Cohen, Clark’s challenger in the June Democratic primary, is spotlighting Clark’s pro-carceral track record. Cohen also says that she will be far more aggressive in investigating wrongdoing by Bronx landlords. 

Darcel Clark played a key role in jailing Kalief Browder, a teen-ager, for three years at Rikers while awaiting trial. She has recently lobbied Albany to roll back bail reforms that were passed in 2019 to prevent more Kalief Browders.

The candidate spent most of the past decade working in the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor (the city’s sixth DA). She served as chief of the Prescription Drug Investigation Unit, bringing cases against pharmaceutical providers that fueled the opioid crisis. 

Cohen, a native of Southern California, has lived with her family for the past 11 years in an apartment in Concourse, near Yankee Stadium and the Bronx courthouse. She is well aware that her background differs from the low-income Bronx residents who come into the most contact with the criminal justice system. 

“They are facing problems created by structural racism that I’ve never experienced,” Cohen tells The Indypendent. “But it’s up to our campaign to go to every neighborhood and earn our votes.”   

Sharon Dalton, who helped Cohen’s campaign collect roughly 8,600 signatures in order to get on the June ballot, says that Cohen’s criticisms of Clark resonated with voters across the borough. Like Clark, Dalton is African American, close to 60 years old, and raised in the Bronx. 

Dalton says that “The two issues that we got the best response about were Cohen’s support for closing Rikers and her pledge to prosecute bad landlords.” Dalton reports that residents in the Fordham Heights area near Twin Parks, site of the deadly January 2022 fire, were especially interested in seeing negligent property owners face consequences. 

“I’ve never seen Clark hold landlords accountable at any level,” says Cohen. “Prosecutors have to go after these cases proactively, and my office will generate investigations by working collaboratively with tenant advocates and community organizations.”

Cohen, who positions herself as a “very progressive prosecutor,” also seeks to implement greater oversight regarding conditions at Rikers. She would review all current Bronx cases that involve bail and vows to expedite any backlogged cases that have dragged on for years. She would also impanel a grand jury to investigate the conditions that led to a large number of deaths at Rikers last year. 

“My goal is to reduce the footprint of the criminal justice system in the Bronx,” says Cohen. “And that means I will not support any of the policies that contributed to the death of Kalief Browder.”

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