Stand up for the facts!
Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.
I would like to contribute
If Your Time is short
In 2022, the first year Alvin Bragg served as Manhattan district attorney, his staff downgraded 52% of felonies that were screened to misdemeanors, an increase from prior years.
Data from 2021 shows that other boroughs had a greater percentage of felonies that had been downgraded to misdemeanors.
Downgrading or upgrading charges after an arrest is not uncommon, experts said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joined his fellow Republicans in attacking Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who presented evidence against former President Donald Trump to a grand jury. Trump, whom the grand jusry indicted, faces 34 felony counts and is accused of falsifying business records to protect his presidential aspirations.
Bragg used his office to "impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety," DeSantis said at a recent news conference. "He has downgraded over 50% of the felonies to misdemeanors."
Bragg’s approach to running the district attorney’s office has been criticized by Republicans since he took office in January 2022. The case against Trump has increased GOP attacks on Bragg, a former federal prosecutor from Harlem.
We wondered whether DeSantis was correct, if more than 50% of felonies in Manhattan were downgraded to misdemeanors.
Data posted on the district attorney’s website shows how the office handled arrests over the years.
Felonies are more serious charges and can lead to more than one year in jail. Misdemeanors are lesser charges and carry a penalty of up to a year in jail.
In 2022, Manhattan prosecutors reviewed 15,710 felony arrests and the office declined to prosecute 1,225 of them, or 7.8%. Of the felony cases that survived review, 52% were downgraded to a misdemeanor, 7% were downgraded to a lower-level felony, 8% were upgraded to a different felony, 33% were an equivalent felony, and in 0.1% of cases, 12 in all, the charge was downgraded to a violation. The data does not signal why prosecutors changed the charges, though experts told us this practice is not unusual.
Under Bragg, prosecutors downgraded a greater share of felony charges to misdemeanors than in recent history in Manhattan. In 2021, under his predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., 47% of felonies were downgraded to misdemeanors. In 2020, when the city was strained by COVID-19 quarantines and related judicial delays, that figure was 35%. It was 39% in 2019 and 40% in 2018.
2023 data shows that so far, 54% of felonies have been downgraded to misdemeanors.
But in the recent past, before Bragg took over, the rates of downgrading felonies to misdemeanors were higher in other New York City boroughs. Similar state data compiled by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that in 2021, the most recent year with available data, three other boroughs had higher rates: 56% in the Bronx, 57% in Brooklyn and 59% in Queens. (This data, which could have included a different set of cases, showed that in Manhattan in 2021, the rate was 52%.)
Prosecutors’ decisions to downgrade or upgrade a charge after an arrest are common, because prosecutors have more complete information than police officers do at the time of an arrest, said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director for Greater Justice New York, part of the Vera Institute of Justice, a group calling to end to mass incarceration. Although police officers must make decisions in the moment, prosecutors can take a longer view, weigh evidence and think through how they can build a case, Harris-Calvin said.
Other experts agreed.
"Law enforcement must establish probable cause to effectuate an arrest, but prosecutors are likely applying the higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt to determine what charges they may be able to prove at trial," said Krystal Rodriguez, policy director at the Data Collaborative for Justice.
There are other factors, too, said Hannah Meyers, a fellow and director of policing and public safety at the conservative Manhattan Institute. A state discovery law from 2019 burdened prosecutors, leading to increases in dismissed cases and other outcomes, including downgrading charges, she said. The law requires prosecutors to share their evidence with defense attorneys quickly — within 20 days if a defendant is in jail — or risk having the case dismissed, though extensions are granted. The law was in response to situations in which defendants and their lawyers were unaware of all of the evidence that would be used against them.
Bragg has also brought his own priorities to the office, which perhaps can be attributed to the increase in the percentage of felonies that were downgraded to misdemeanors in 2022, Meyers said.
Bragg campaigned promising to reform prosecutions. But soon after taking office, he came under fire for a memo in which he said that over-incarceration does not make the city safer, and that jail should be reserved for offenders who commit truly violent acts.
Following sharp criticism from elected officials, police and small businesses, Bragg issued another memo a month later, in which he changed some of the earlier memo’s language. For instance, he said that commercial robberies at knifepoint or with another weapon that could cause physical harm should be prosecuted as felonies.
Bragg’s approach factors in what he says is an over-incarceration in his borough. Manhattan incarcerated a greater share of its residents than the city’s other boroughs by a wide margin. On Jan. 3, 2022, of every 100,000 residents, Queens had 40 incarcerated, Brooklyn had 44, Staten Island had 51, the Bronx had 78 and Manhattan had 106.
Bragg’s spokesperson pointed us to historical data on the district attorney’s website but otherwise declined to comment.
DeSantis’ spokesperson did not return a request for information.
DeSantis claimed that Bragg has downgraded "over 50% of the felonies to misdemeanors."
Data from Bragg’s website confirms that 52% of felonies that were screened by prosecutors were downgraded to misdemeanors in 2022, the first year Bragg was in office. 2023 data shows that so far, 54% of felonies have been downgraded to misdemeanors.
Experts said that downgrading charges is a common practice and that it was done more often in three of New York’s other boroughs, according to state data from 2021.
We rate this claim True.
RELATED: All of our fact-checks of DeSantis
Twitter, video of Gov. DeSantis news conference, via @FLVoiceNews, March 20, 2023.
Email interview, Krystal Rodriguez, policy director, Data Collaborative for Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, March 21, 2023.
Email interview, Olive Lu, Ph.D., associate director for research, Data Collaborative for Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, March 21, 2023.
Phone interview, Jullian Harris-Calvin, director, Greater Justice New York, Vera Institute of Justice, March 21, 2023.
Email interview, Doug Cohen, spokesperson, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, March 21, 2023.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Data Dashboard, arrest data, accessed April 8, 2023.
Email interview, Hannah Meyers, fellow, director, Policing & Public Safety, Manhattan Institute, March 22, 2023.
Gothamist, "Bragg walks back some stances in maligned policy memo amid pressure," Feb. 4, 2022.
Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg Day 1 Memo Fact Sheet, Jan. 6, 2022.
The New York Times, "Why hundreds of New York City prosecutors are leaving their jobs," April 4, 2022.
New York State, Division of Criminal Justice Services, "Implementation of 2020 discovery law changes: update," December 2021.
Data Collaborative for Justice, Discovery reform in New York, updated May 2022.
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.