11/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Unthinkable

As we exercise our democratic right and take to the polls today here in Manhattan, I'd like to lay out, with great humility and gratitude, where we've come in our discussion on criminal justice -- and where we must still go.

First, I am awed and humbled by the interest Manhattan residents from every neighborhood and of every race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, and walk of life have shown in transforming our criminal justice system. One of the reasons I am so optimistic and confident we'll succeed and stop crime before it starts, address racial inequities, and strengthen the way we offer young people constructive alternatives is because our friends and neighbors are willing to work together to achieve it.

As many of you know, when we began our campaign for Manhattan District Attorney many months ago, the progressive ideas we presented about transforming the criminal justice system were viewed by some as too risky and honest to say in a political campaign.

As one much-read columnist wrote in a piece called "The Richard Aborn Experiment," referring to our progressive agenda for a law enforcement office:

Unusually, he's betting that he can win a race for a crime-fighting post not by appealing to the public's fear of rising crime, but by focusing on traditional liberal ideas about the rehabilitation of prisoners and the root causes of criminal misconduct. He talks about the need to "break the cycle of violence" and of "rejecting those methodologies that have a high likelihood of making people into career criminals."

This skepticism was common in those early days of the campaign. We were told that moving away from a "jail first" mentality, and towards a model for the office that looks to stop crime before it starts -- through community interventions and innovative practices -- might be smart and inspiring, but would never fly politically.

We were told talking honestly about the hard issues and failings of our system -- that one in three African American men and one in six Latino men will spend some portion of their life in prison, that four of five youths entering the system will recycle through it, that walking while black should not be a crime -- does not lend itself to safe political soundbites.

But then, something humbling, inspiring, and unthinkable happened.

Rather than everyone in the race trying to out-do one another as the "tough on crime" candidate, we -- and by that, I mean our supporters and campaign, as this has been a bottom-up movement -- were able to change the terms of the debate. This became a campaign about a new vision for our criminal justice system -- one that emphasizes preventing crime and alternatives to the costly and ineffective paradigm of mass incarceration.

First our vision for the office began to catch on among progressive-minded voters who believe we must remain vigilant in prosecuting violent crime (as a former homicide prosecutor in the DA's office, this is an absolute top priority for me), but also shift the paradigm on non-violent crime to help people who have addiction issues, mental health problems, and adolescents who make a mistake, get the help they need and avoid a life of crime.

A word-of-mouth campaign, fueled by door knocking and meeting with voters on street corners, parks and playgrounds created a burst of grassroots support that had nothing to do with me, but rather the ideas we stand for, and the tireless commitment and work of our wonderful volunteers.

As these ideas began to catch on, we slowly captured the imagination and support of the majority of local Democratic and progressive organizations and clubs that held forums where they asked all three candidates some very tough questions about their vision for the office. This was followed by the lion's share of endorsements from elected officials like Congressman Jerry Nadler and 16 others, who met with all three of us and kicked the tires, so to speak, to learn our ideas for the office. As a result, thanks to our great supporters, local political experts called us "the surprise candidate, both in terms of the endorsements he has received and the amount of money he has raised."

And then, after months of being the lone progressive in the race, the other candidates began to catch on.

As our ideas for transforming the criminal justice system caught fire, the other candidates began to incorporate similar sounding remarks into their speeches so frequently that the Daily News wrote a story on it, reporting that "observers note [one opponent] recently hijacked rival Richard Aborn's 'progressive'" message.

More recently, those carefully watching the race in recent weeks have probably noticed all the stories about how the candidates seem to be talking about prevention and the need for constructive alternatives to prison. In fact, if you saw our final debate on Sunday, you'd notice that the other candidates have begun to echo our ideas so much that it almost sounds like they're supporting us (check out this amusing video).

So that's the good news: Because of all your hard work, we've changed the debate. By articulating a strongly progressive, prevention-oriented platform and speaking directly and honestly about racial justice, we have reshaped criminal justice thinking in New York.

But our work isn't done. There's one step you can take today to help us roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work.

If you believe that there's something wrong with our criminal justice system when nearly one out of three African-American men -- and one out of six Latino men -- can expect to spend some portion of their life in prison and four out of five juvenile offenders are re-arrested within a few years of their first arrest, please consider supporting our cause today and coming out to vote.

If you think it's time for a progressive and effective District Attorney, who finds better ways to prevent crime before it happens -- by getting guns off our streets before they're used, giving at-risk kids alternatives to crime, and treating drug addiction as a public-health rather than a criminal-justice problem -- please consider supporting our cause today and coming out to vote (click here to learn where to vote).

If you think that walking while black should not be a crime in the city with the richest cultural diversity in the world, and that it's time to revisit dysfunctional and discriminatory "stop and frisk" practices, please exercise your voice in our democratic system and vote today.

We've come so far, and achieved what seemed unthinkable a few short months ago
We can go even further today, by winning this campaign, and transforming our criminal justice system together.

Thank you for your support and consideration. I am so deeply humbled and awed by what we've been able to achieve together.