By Jill Colvin
MIDTOWN — Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr is sick of slapping repeat offenders with misdemeanor crimes.
As he embarks on his second year as Manhattan's top prosecutor, Vance is calling on lawmakers to give judges the power to charge repeat criminals with more serious felony charges in an attempt to break the trend.
"I believe that we have in our city a small number of people that cause a disproportionate amount of the problems," Vance told Midtown residents at a recent police community precinct meeting — his first stop on a planned borough-wide tour. "At a certain time you just have to say, enough is enough."
The get-tough rhetoric is a change in tone for Vance, said Nora Demleitner, a dean and professor at Hofstra University School of Law, who specializes in sentencing.
"It seems to be a fundamental shift from prior police and policy approaches," she said.
A spokeswoman for Vance's office said that he's ready to shift gears and is set to formally roll out his legislative priorities in February.
Vance created a Crime Strategies Unit to identify crime hot spots and has been putting together files on each precinct's most serious repeat offenders so they're on hand to give to judges when they strike again.
Under the proposal Vance outlined last week, someone who is convicted of five to eight misdemeanors over a stretch of five or so years could be prosecuted, if he breaks the law again, as though he committed a felony crime.
"It gives the judge a lot more range of sentence and tools," Vance explained, adding that the threat of being sent to state prison could prove a more effective deterrent than several weeks or months in jail.
Vance is also calling for a similar model when it comes to domestic violence, arguing that police should be able to charge anyone who commits a second misdemeanor domestic violence offense with a felony crime.
Demleitner described the proposal as "a criminalization initiative" and said the consequences would be far-ranging, with more people sent to jail and saddled with serious criminal records that make it difficult to get jobs.
While the law professor said she understood Vance's frustrations, she questioned the assumption that the threat of prison time would be an effective deterrent and warned that the plan would likely increase judicial discretion, which she said stands contrary to the goals of the state's new Permanent Sentencing Commission.
Vance was appointed co-chair of the Commission in October and is charged with reviewing the state's sentencing laws to increase transparency.
Either way, Demleitner said the move would likely give the office more bargaining power.
"It will create ultimately more power for the DAs office in terms of plea bargains," she said.
But celebrity criminal defense attorney Benjamin Brafman, who has sparred with the DA’s office many times before, said that he’s willing to give Vance the benefit of the doubt when it comes to legislative proposals.
"I don't always agree with everything that Cy Vance does, but I have been very impressed with many of the refreshing ideas that he has launched since coming to the office," Brafman said.
While he feels it's still too early in Vance's tenure to know where his priorities lie, Brafman said that so far, he's right on track.
"He is, I think, doing what he promised to do in his campaign and that is to bring new ideas to an office that I think was in need of some," he said.