Manhattan's top prosecutor says he's taking steps to tackle a backlog of misdemeanor cases. And some of those steps are right into a courtroom.
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. spent about two hours Thursday doing what's normally a junior prosecutor's job in a court that handles misdemeanors and some felony cases in their early stages. His stint there entailed dealing with procedural matters and plea deal offers and otherwise helping dozens of cases move along in the court system.
It wasn't the usual day's work for a prosecutor who leads one of the nation's biggest and most prominent DA's offices, but Vance said he was doing his part toward an effort to have senior prosecutors help with the roughly 16,500 misdemeanor and early-stage felony cases open in Manhattan at any given time.
"I think it's important, when you're asking everyone to share the load, that the district attorney is prepared to share the work," Vance said later.
Assistant prosecutors tasked to misdemeanor courts are generally responsible for 250 to 400 cases apiece. They juggle trial preparations with routine courtroom duties that often fill as many as four days a week.
Vance said he hopes giving them more time to focus on individual cases will help resolve the cases faster, ultimately cutting the number of open cases by as much as half — and reducing the number that end up being dismissed because prosecutors weren't ready to try them by legal deadlines. Court statistics show that last year more than 4,800 Manhattan cases were closed for that reason, out of about 100,000 resolved overall.
Vance, a Democrat, took office in January. He was an assistant prosecutor in Manhattan in the 1980s before becoming a defense lawyer.
While big-city DAs generally don't spend much time in court, some do prosecute cases personally from time to time.
In Chicago, for example, then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine led the 2000 trial of three men charged with killing a community activist who campaigned for better housing. The men maintained they weren't involved in the killing, but two were convicted of murder while the third, a landlord, was convicted of soliciting murder for hire.