Lucy Lang has spent most of her career as a criminal-justice reformer. But is she too close to the system to bring about real change?
June 11, 2021, 11:02 a.m. ET
Lucy Lang is a squeaky wheel, a meddler, a self-described noodge.
A granddaughter of the philanthropist Eugene Lang, she is bent on the constant improvement of her surroundings. In the dozen years she spent working at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she developed a reputation for pushing reforms that created new opportunities for those charged by prosecutors — but she was also stymied by a leadership team that did not always want things to change as fast as she did.
Now Ms. Lang, 40, wants to be in charge of that change, running against seven other Democrats to replace her old boss, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., as the Manhattan district attorney. In April, she gave her own campaign half a million dollars, according to campaign finance reports, in hopes of staying competitive with two leading candidates, Tali Farhadian Weinstein and Alvin Bragg. While little quality polling has come out in the race, the few available surveys have shown her trailing only Ms. Weinstein in popularity.
But as a longtime employee in the district attorney’s office, she is also the candidate who has worked most closely with Mr. Vance, who has been something of a punching bag for the other contenders. They have criticized what they say is his relative slowness in making the criminal justice system less punitive for lower-income New Yorkers, while being too lenient on the wealthy and powerful.
All of this sets up an apparent contradiction for Ms. Lang’s campaign: She cites her experience working in the office led by Mr. Vance, even as she insists that she is the right person to reform that office.
Veterans of the office characterized Ms. Lang as someone skilled at bringing about meaningful reform from inside the system. Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former deputy to Mr. Vance, said that while her old boss was more progressive than his critics say, Ms. Lang deserved praise for her sustained commitment to change, especially in seeking ways to reduce the reliance on jails and prisons.
“She and a couple of other junior people took it upon themselves — and this is a highly unusual thing to do — they took it upon themselves to come to me and give me their ideas and thoughts and suggestions about how the office could be better,” Ms. Agnifilo said.
But Ms. Lang’s opponents remain skeptical.
“It’s not like she was an A.D.A. in this bureau or that bureau,” said Dan Quart, another candidate and a longtime state assemblyman who has been critical of Mr. Vance. “She was in the room when they made policy decisions.”
Asked about her time at Mr. Vance’s office, Ms. Lang was diplomatic.
“I could see that the world was changing and that the office wasn’t quite keeping pace,” she said. “Although there were respects in which there were great advances being made.”
An unusual curiosity
The oldest child of the actor Stephen Lang — perhaps best known for playing the vicious Col. Miles Quaritch in “Avatar” — and Kristina Watson, a painter, Ms. Lang was born in Manhattan and raised in the West Village and in Westchester.
Early on she showed an unusual curiosity about other people. At her family’s annual Memorial Day picnic, she would go from blanket to blanket, asking strangers to share their food, then joining them to chat — an openness that friends say helps explain her later success at climbing the ladder at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Like her grandfather and her father, she went to Swarthmore, where she studied political and legal philosophy and served as captain of the lacrosse team. (“I’m not a good athlete,” she said, “but I just like being on a team.”) Then, inspired in part by her aunt, the lawyer and philanthropist Jane Lang, she enrolled at Columbia Law School.
Two experiences during her student years drove Ms. Lang to become a prosecutor: In 2004 she worked for Judge Jed S. Rakoff as he presided over a death penalty case, and the following winter, a childhood friend of Ms. Lang’s was killed by the friend’s own brother. She said that seeing her friend’s family take on dual roles — relatives of both the victim and the defendant — gave her a sense of how both groups can be harmed by prosecutors.
“I just saw it as a real opportunity for public servants to do things differently, to support people better,” she said.
After graduating in 2006, she went to work for Robert Morgenthau, the venerable Manhattan district attorney, starting in the appeals division. Along the way she built a friendly relationship with Mr. Morgenthau; she later co-wrote one of his final opinion articles.
By 2010, when Mr. Vance took over the office, she was working in the trial division. It was there that she first noticed a small problem: Doctors were reluctant to testify in criminal court, concerned that doing so could make them subject to civil liability. It was the sort of specific, concrete issue she loved to tackle. Working with an emergency room doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine, Ms. Lang created a curriculum to teach doctors about criminal trials.
Even as her cases became more intense — she started working murder trials in 2013 — Ms. Lang’s ambitions for improving the office became grander. After she won a wiretap case against 35 people for selling angel dust, heroin and cocaine, she successfully pitched the office’s leadership team on a program promoting alternatives to incarceration for young offenders. (It later became a unit that provides some defendants the chance to participate in community-based programs in lieu of prison.)
By that time, Ms. Lang said, she was not nervous presenting to the office’s leaders; she knew them all.
In January 2017, Ms. Agnifilo promoted Ms. Lang, giving her a special position leading policy at the office. That fall, Ms. Lang piloted the first version of what would become the Inside Criminal Justice initiative, a series of seminars that brought prosecutors and incarcerated people together to talk about the justice system and how to improve it.
Jarrell Daniels, a participant in the initiative who had recently been released from prison, was so intrigued by the program that he asked to return to the facility to continue with it. He remembered sitting around a table in a cramped conference room, watching as the participants grilled Ms. Lang.
“She’s either brave or she’s crazy, or she might be both,” he remembered thinking.
“She sat there kind of poised as they gave it to her about the district attorney’s office and vented about their personal experiences with the justice system,” he said. “Although that wasn’t what she was there for, she kind of allowed them to share their piece.”
‘What are we waiting for?’
Ideas about the criminal justice system changed rapidly during Mr. Vance’s time in office.
In 2010, he was seen as one of the more liberal district attorneys in the country. When he leaves office, at the end of this year, he will do so as a seeming moderate — not because he has necessarily changed, but because a wave of more recently elected prosecutors have moved aggressively to take on what they consider fundamental injustices in the system. (Mr. Vance’s defenders respond that he has cut prosecutions by nearly 60 percent and established one of the nation’s first conviction integrity programs, among other accomplishments.)
More than a dozen of those recently elected prosecutors have endorsed Ms. Lang’s candidacy, including Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney in Baltimore. She said that Ms. Lang was one of the more prominent people behind the scenes in the progressive prosecutor movement, particularly through her work at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, a role she took on in 2018.
Ms. Mosby said that Ms. Lang’s ideas tended to scramble the power dynamics of the system, bringing together prosecutors — those with the most power — and incarcerated people, who have the least.
“Her having an understanding and appreciation for that was something I found rather compelling,” Ms. Mosby said. “Not a lot of prosecutors have that.”
Ms. Lang insists that despite her years working within the legal establishment, she is no incrementalist — she argues that she has made “systemic” change. But opponents to her left, like Mr. Quart and another candidate, Tahanie Aboushi, have raised questions about whether she, or any experienced prosecutor, can be relied upon to uproot a system in which they thrived.
“While I appreciate that Lucy is leaning into reform as much as a career prosecutor can, an entire career of inside-the-box thinking is going to get us minor refinements to what we already have,” said Ms. Aboushi’s campaign manager, Jamarah Hayner. “And that’s just not good enough.”
Even Ms. Lang’s fans acknowledge that she was sometimes hampered by the inertia of the office bureaucracy. She is particularly closemouthed about her relationship with Mr. Vance — she declines to criticize him, but insists that had he decided to run for re-election, she would have run against him.
Ms. Agnifilo said that while she knows Ms. Lang “respects” Mr. Vance, she understood why it was tricky for her, as a candidate, to be too associated with him, given some of the criticism he has faced. She added that when she and Ms. Lang would argue at work, it wasn’t about the direction that the office should head in, but the speed at which it should do it.
“I appreciated the fact that some of these things were so important that she was like, ‘What are we waiting for? Let’s just do it,’” Ms. Agnifilo said.