11/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being Tough on Crime: Not a Winner in New York City DA's Race

On Sep. 15, Cy Vance Jr. overwhelmingly beat Leslie Crocker Snyder in the race to be Manhattan's next district attorney. Since there is no Republican challenger, Vance will be voted into office in November.

Snyder, who built her career as a ruthless prosecutor and judge, was beaten so bad that the Village Voice quoted her on election night saying that she was retiring from politics and going to China. In my view, Snyder lost because of her over-reliance on a misguided tough-on-crime approach, and because of her inability to balance her decisions with common sense and compassion.

In the past Snyder portrayed herself as a John Wayne type of crusader of justice who kicked butt and took no names. Yes, I know she says she only aimed the barrels of her gun at the bad apples of society. But the main problem with that was she could not tell the difference between apples and oranges.

In her run for Manhattan District Attorney Snyder completely revamped her image and attempted to portray herself as a progressive thinker. She suddenly flipped her position on issues like the death penalty and the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Not long ago she was such a strong supporter of the death penalty that she said she would insert the needle herself to deliver the death sentence. She also suddenly claimed to be a leader in the epic struggle to reform the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Her record as a judge told a different story, sentencing low level offenders to tremendous amounts of time for drug convictions.

The office of District Attorney demands a competent leader that possesses a balanced view of justice predicated on the concept of being tough on crime, but also being smart on crime. Recently this approach broke into the national landscape thanks to a smart and tough politician named Jim Webb, a senator from Virginia. He called for an overhaul of the U.S. prison system -- stating that the American system for the prosecution and incarceration of criminals not only needs reform, but has become a "national disgrace".

Webb also sees the drug war as the primary cause for the overpopulation of our prison system, and recently told CNN that marijuana legalization is one of the policy changes that should be considered: "Well, I think what we need to do is to put all of the issues on the table ... If you go back to 1980 as a starting point, I think we had 40,000 people in prison on drug charges, and today, we have about 500,000 of them," the first-term Virginia lawmaker said. "And the great majority of those are nonviolent crimes -- possession crimes or minor sales."

Any discussion of being smart on crime in New York must broach the subject of marijuana arrests. New York City now leads the world in low-level marijuana arrests. Even though surveys show half of American adults have used marijuana and a similar amount want to see marijuana made legal, arrests are at all time high in New York City. Since 2002, there have been over 255,000 arrests for misdemeanor possession. As District Attorney, Cy Vance Jr. should find solutions to this costly and ineffective policing policy.

The voters of Manhattan spoke out and elected Cy Vance Jr. as their district attorney. Vance said he will try new approaches to cut crime and I wish him luck. The message I give to Vance is that if he adopts a balanced approach to justice that incorporates compassion, he will go a long way. And as for Judge Snyder, I bid her farewell and I wish her ride on a slow boat to China is a good one.

Anthony Papa is the author of 15 To Life and a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance Network.