Tess Cohen will steer opposite of Darcel Clark in Bronx DA race

Criminal defense, civil rights attorney runs on a preventive crime agenda


Tess Cohen, a former prosecutor and now criminal defense and civil rights attorney, says if elected as district attorney she will steer in a different direction from the incumbent Darcel Clark.

In an interview with The Riverdale Press, the Democratic challenger says she wants to have an office that is dedicated not to reflexive punishment but to doing everything it can to prevent crimes going forward.

“I think often in the criminal justice system as it currently exists actually chooses punishment even when punishment makes it more likely someone’s going to commit a crime in the future,” she said. “That’s exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I want us to be focusing on in appropriate cases which is a large, large portion of them in providing services rather than them resulting in convictions and incarcerations.”

Cohen grew up in Riverside, California. She described the schools she went to as very diverse with the majority English as a second language students. Her father encouraged Cohen to be involved with her community, teaching her the effects of structural racism, generational poverty and trauma.

There was an incident in Cohen’s town where a young unconscious woman in a car with a gun next to her was shot to death by police after her family called for help.

This was explained to Cohen as a result of racism. It was one of the early moments that got her thinking of criminal justice.

Another moment was when a “notoriously bad” district attorney refused a plea bargain, creating too long of sentences and backlogs. There was an instance where a prosecutor was handling someone else’s case and released a man who ended up killing his wife. It gave Cohen insight into how much power a prosecutor has to do good and bad. Simultaneously, it made her think about what the DA’s office could do better to prevent crimes.

Knowing that she wanted to be a prosecutor, Cohen tried to do everything she could while attending Columbia Law School. She interned at the Women’s Prison Project and did classic conviction and prosecution work in the Bronx.

After finishing law school she moved to the Bronx, where she felt at home with the different cultures, immigration, and diversity. She now works for ZMO Law PLLC.

During her time at the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office she suggested the office get involved in the Manhattan DA office’s Alternatives to Incarceration Court. As part of that, she wanted a program geared toward people about to be convicted of their first felony so they could be put into a diversion program instead of being convicted of a felony. The office ended up taking her suggestion.

According to Cohen, her colleagues would describe her as empathetic, coming up with new angles and ideas on issues, good at solving problems.

“I think the other big thing I bring to this office is I’ve worked on the other side. I’ve worked as a defense attorney. I’ve worked on wrongful convictions. I’ve represented women sexually assaulted by prison guards,” Cohen said.

Cohen believes that when Clark entered the DA’s office she instituted some positive reforms, but at this point they are insufficient to address public safety and promote fairness. She is also concerned that Clark has been on a “crusade” to undo discovery reforms.

“I ran a unit that prosecuted prescription drug crimes, and I did that when the discovery log came into effect, which the current district attorney is blaming for a lot of the difficulties her office had,” Cohen said.

“But the truth of the matter is what I did when this happened and what needs to happen is I created a structure that my whole unit follows  . . . to make sure the flow of information was coming through and was processed in a way that made the least amount of burden possible on prosecutors, while making sure defendants got the evidence they needed as quickly as possible.”

Cohen believes an office that is more focused on treatment versus punishment will free up attention and resources on the office to focus on cases where the most harm is occurring. Those include homicides, attempted homicides, hate crimes, and sexual assault, of which only 26 percent of cases in the Bronx results in a conviction after an arrest, according to Cohen.

“We’re not using the office to help people when powerful people are committing crimes against them,” Cohen said. “By that I mean landlords, employers, and of course also public officials.”

Another big priority for Cohen is Rikers Island. As a district attorney, Cohen says she would open a grand jury investigation into conditions there and bring charges where appropriate. She also would want to issue reports detailing what’s going on at Rikers Island for the public so that the pressure stays on to close it as planned.

“Housing people at Rikers Island ultimately makes us less safe because most people at Rikers are one day going to go back, they’re going to leave prison one day.” Cohen said.

“And when we send them to Rikers, we strip them of services, we traumatize them enormously, and then things are so much worse for them.

“We take all of the reasons that most people commit a crime and exasperate them.”

Cohen also described the lack of assistance the mentally ill receive in the justice system, saying some are being cycled in and out of jails. Some of the crimes they commit come from the fact that they don’t have the resources that wealthy mentally ill people have, she said.

For pre-trial, Cohen would require that anyone who’s held on bail have their case reviewed by a supervisor immediately and ensure that as few people are being held as possible. Where applicable, people would move into treatment immediately and also where necessary use more ankle monitoring.

For post-conviction and incarceration, Cohen believes just because you can charge something doesn’t mean you have to.

She said a lot of crimes have the illusion of seriousness in New York laws, giving the example of package stealing from an apartment hallway being categorized as a violent crime despite the fact an apartment wasn’t actually entered.

“I know the devastation of families when their family members are arrested,” she said. “I know how minor hiccups in getting arrested for a minor crime while out on bail, how devastating consequences (can be) when, if someone wasn’t young and Black, they never would have been arrested for the crime in the first place. I know so crucially how justice delayed is justice denied.”

According to Cohen, we are at a “crossroads of criminal justice reform” and the Bronx has been overlooked and left behind for a long time. She said the Bronx needs and deserves the best version of a criminal justice system they can have.

A Democratic primary between the two candidates will be held Tuesday, June 27.

Tess Cohen, Darcel Clark, Bronx DA, Democrat, primary, June 27, ZMO Law PLLC