Queens County District Attorney Race

On May 2, 2019, long-time Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown passed away after nearly three decades in the seat. The position is now up for grabs and the Democratic candidate will be decided at the polls on June 25th. Officially, the District Attorney (DA) is the head prosecutor for the local government of their particular district. Alongside law enforcement, the DA investigates evidence and from there decides what charges to file against the accused, if any. They also determine plea deals and make recommendations to trial judges about sentencing and pretrial detention, bail or release. Grand jury proceedings, where the jury determines the validity of a criminal accusation, are also in the domain of the DA, the only attorney allowed to be present. Overall, the DA’s office has a lot of power and discretion in shaping the Queens criminal justice system, and in the era of mass incarceration, this election concerns everyone in our community, especially people of color.

As a relic of the “tough on crime” era in politics, former DA Brown represented an old, established order that politicians today are fervently rejecting. This Democratic primary is no exception, with each of the seven candidates seeking to emphasize their distinctiveness and commitment to sweeping reforms. Considering a Republican candidate has not won the seat since 1921, whoever wins the Democratic candidacy will likely go on to become the next Queens DA. The more progressive bloc of candidates is composed of Tiffany Cabán, Rory Lancman, Mina Malik, and Jose Nieves while Betty Lugo, Greg Lasak as well as Melinda Katz are the more conservative Democrats. More details about the candidates and their ideologies on important topics are as follows:

Candidate Experience:

All of the candidates have experience in legal and/or government professions. Tiffany Cabán has spent the majority of her career as a public defender; Rory Lancman is a City Councilmember who chairs the Committee on the Justice System and previously served in both the NY Assembly and the NY’s 42nd Infantry Division; Mina Malik is a lecturer at Harvard Law School and has previously worked at the D.C. Public Defender Service, served as special counsel in the Brooklyn DA’s office, Deputy Attorney General for the District of Columbia, special victims prosecutor in Queens and the leader of NYC’s police oversight agency: the Civilian Complaint Review Board; Jose Nieves is an army veteran who was deployed in Afghanistan, previously worked in the NYS Attorney General’s Office, the Brooklyn DA’s office and the NYC Department of Corrections Trials and Litigation Division; Betty Lugo is a founding member of the law firm Pacheco & Lugo and previously worked in the Nassau County DA’s Office; Greg Lasak resigned as a NY State Supreme Court judge to run for DA and previously led the homicide bureau of the Queens DA’s office; and finally, Melinda Katz is the Borough President and former member of both the NY Assembly and the City Council where she chaired the Land Use Committee.

Broken Window Offenses:

Broken Windows theory of policing alleges that visible, low-level crimes can create a disorderly environment that encourages greater disorder and more serious crimes. These minor offenses include turnstile-jumping, unlicensed driving, graffiti, loitering and even panhandling. These prosecutions disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color while contributing to mass incarceration. Cabán and Mailk have said they will not prosecute any of such offenses and every other candidate (Lancman, Nieves, Lugo, Lasak and Katz) will not prosecute most of these offenses to divert resources to more serious crimes.

Cash Bail:

Bail is determined by the judge presiding over a trial so ultimately prosecutors cannot make the final decision. However, they can make recommendations that judges take seriously. Cabán, Lancman, Malik, and Nieves have all maintained that they will never ask for cash bail. Lugo and Lasak support cash bail for certain violent offenses but not for low-level non-violent offenses. Melinda Katz previously echoed Lugo and Lasak but changed her position in favor of ending cash bail in all cases.

Closing Rikers/Jail Construction:

While the DA does not have the power to close or open any jails, they can refuse to send people to them. Cabán, Lancman, Malik, Nieves, Lugo and Katz all support the closure of Rikers Island. Lasak supports refurbishing Rikers to keep it open and does not support building any new jails elsewhere. Lancman and Katz are proponents of building new borough jails to replace Rikers Island and allow inmates to be closer to family and other resources. Cabán, Malik and Nieves, on the other hand, do not support building new jails to replace Rikers as they are fierce proponents of decarceration.

Immigration:

All candidates have said that they will not cooperate with ICE and are against their presence in court.

Sex Work:

Malik, Lasak, and Lugo will not prosecute sex workers but will prosecute the “Johns” or customers, pimps and brothel owners. Cabán and Nieves will not prosecute sex workers or “Johns.” Lancman and Katz support the Queens Trafficking Intervention Court which treats defendants as victims and dismisses most cases after defendants attend counseling.

Looking Deeper:

While anything can certainly happen on election day, the front-runners according to the polls are Melinda Katz, Tiffany Cabán and Greg Lasak by a large margin, which warrants further analysis of the merits and criticisms of these candidates. Melinda Katz has extensive knowledge of local politics and the major players in the city. Her leadership experience prepares her for the DA position, considering assistant district attorney’s do most of the heavy lifting under the direction of the DA. However, she is criticized for being a part of established political traditions.

Tiffany Cabán embodies a new order in essentially every facet. She is a young, queer, Puerto Rican woman who celebrates her working class status as a career public defender. She’s a fast-talking, passionate speaker who rose from an underdog to a front-runner almost overnight. It is no surprise that she has been endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Still, Caban has been criticised for her lack of leadership and prosecutorial experience. In the NY1 debate, she defended herself by citing all of the collaborative work she has led and the extremely large caseload public defenders are known to have.

Greg Lasak was endorsed by the Daily News and was the only candidate to receive the Queen’s County Bar Association’s highest rating of “well qualified.” He spent 25 years as a Queens ADA and 15 more years as a State Supreme Court Judge trying felony cases. He exonerated over 20 wrongly convicted men and created diversion programs for offenders. However, Lasak has received criticism for being too entrenched in the status quo. For instance, the Central Park 5 case where five Black men were wrongly convicted of a brutal rape gained considerable attention after the Netflix series When They See Us. It is alarming, however, that Lasak recieved a donation from the prosecutor Linda Fairstein earlier this year. In the NY1 debate, he also said he was not yet sure whether he would look into all of Fairstein’s prior convictions to make sure there was no wrongdoing. With that being said, Lasak had a remarkably low overturn rate during his time as a judge and has the legal knowledge and experience needed to be an effective DA.

Call to Action:

Regardless of who you decide to vote for, it is of the utmost importance that our voices are heard at the ballot. Former DA Brown sat for seven terms due to uncontested elections, making this the first opportunity for us to make a choice since 1991. No matter who wins the election, there will be major changes made to the Queens criminal justice system, just how much change and its direction is up to us on June 25th!