Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2673 Tue, 21 May 2019 11:04:45 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8373-candidates-for-queens-district-attorney-positions-march-debate Gotham Gazette:

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


The candidates for Queens District Attorney are becoming increasingly clear about where they stand on key criminal justice issues and how they would run the office if elected later this year. Queens is home to its first competitive district attorney election in decades, with long-time District Attorney Richard Brown set to retire and a crowded Democratic primary set for June 25. The general election will be in November.

There are seven candidates currently running, all in the Democratic primary, and six of them met last week for a fast-paced and detail-oriented debate sponsored by the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition, made up of many community and advocacy groups, hosted at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, and moderated by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max.

The candidates for the borough’s top prosecutorial and law enforcement position spoke to roughly 200 attendees and others watching a live-stream, explaining their qualifications for the job and stances on a wide variety of policy issues, some of which they would have control over as district attorney, others that they would be able to influence. Queens, home to more than 2.4 million people, is known as the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the country.

Several questions at the forum were asked by community leaders, on topics ranging from the school-to-prison pipeline to police accountability, such as Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by police in Queens, and Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker, who have affiliations with groups in the sponsoring coalition.

Six of the seven candidates were in attendance. Mina Malik was sick and unable to participate in the forum, though she released a video on Twitter saying she was sorry to miss it and looked forward to engaging with those participating in the event. The six candidates present at the debate were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves.

[For background on the candidates and the race, read: ‘We’re in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Become the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

As they have at other race events, in their campaign materials, and during interviews, the candidates largely agreed that the Queens District Attorney’s office is in serious need of change, in a general sense of modernizing its practices and culture, but also on key practices. The candidates also mostly found broad agreement at the debate that change is needed on a wide variety of topics like cash bail, sex work prosecutions, Rikers Island, and what to do about police misconduct, but the candidates often disagreed on the solutions. In an email exchange with Gotham Gazette, Malik provided her answers to debate questions, which are also included below.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Vision for the Office
At the start of the forum, the candidates were asked how they envision the DA’s office and how it would work under them.

Cabán, a public defender, said she would change the “metrics of success” for the office, claiming there is currently “a system based on gamesmanship” favoring convictions over justice. Instead, she would focus on lowering incarceration and recidivism. Katz, the Queens borough president, envisions the district attorney’s office as a leadership position and that her primary responsibility would be implementing policies and reforms.

Lancman, a City Council member, called the office “more than just a place that processes cases that police bring” and “responsible for public safety in Queens.” He said he would decline to prosecute people with mental illnesses and drug addiction and focus on preventing crime.

Nieves, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the DA’s job is to protect residents and know how and when to prosecute cases. Lugo, an attorney and former prosecutor, cited her campaign theme “true justice for all,” and said the officeholder needed to understand “complexities of the whole system” and “prioritize prosecutions.”

Lasak, who worked in the Queens DA office for many years before becoming a judge -- a position he resigned from to run this year -- called the DA the “chief law enforcement officer for the borough,” and a position that works with the police department.

Violent Crime
The candidates were asked how they would handle prosecutions of violent crime if they were to become the Queens District Attorney, and how that approach may or may not fit into larger calls to reduce the jail population. Teachout noted that the number of people incarcerated in New York for non-violent crimes has steadily dropped over the past two decades, while the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes has remained stagnant.

Cabán took the strongest stance in favor of change, saying that her office would “think of criminals as victims of trauma themselves” and that she considers violent crime to be a “public health problem.” Lancman similarly said that it is imperative to “confront the issue of violence” to achieve decarceration, and that prosecutorial reform “cannot exclude violent crimes.”

Katz noted that disparities in violent crime prosecution have a “disproportionate effect on people of color” and that her office would work for “fair and equitable prosecutions.” She also said that she would focus resources on diversion programs and access to mental health care, working with the community.

Nieves said prosecutors often overcharge defendants to secure a plea deal and that he would end that practice, in addition to engaging in “alternatives to incarceration,” such as diversion programs. Lugo said that the process should focus on care for the victim and the DA’s office should hire social workers for victims of violent crime, but she did not directly answer the question.

Unlike the other five candidates at the debate, Lasak cautioned against changing how the office handles violent crime. He said that the DA’s “main job is public safety” and that “we have to be careful when dealing with violent crime.” The statement was one piece of a pattern throughout the debate, and the broader race, where Lasak has staked out more moderate positions in the field, though at times he is joined by other candidates and he consistently says he would make some progressive changes.

All candidates present answered affirmatively when asked if they thought current sentences for violent crime were too long in general.

By email, Malik said, "Ensuring that violent criminals are held accountable must be a top priority for any District Attorney, but it must be an accountability that keeps our communities both safe and whole." She highlighted her experience in Queens prosecuting "human traffickers, serial rapists, child molesters and violent, repeat offenders," but said she also has "the reform experience of having implemented restorative justice, diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, particularly for first-time violent offenders, so that one mistake doesn’t take a person further down the wrong path."

Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The six candidates were asked whether they would commit to not prosecuting victims of domestic violence and interpersonal conflict for self-defense or acts of survival. All six candidates present committed, with Katz asking “who wouldn’t?”

Malik also made that commitment, and added: As a former Special Victims prosecutor, I worked with countless women who were victims of abuse and assault and I am adamantly committed to ensuring the Queens DA’s Office protect victims, not retraumatize them."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police/Prosecutorial Misconduct
Representatives from the grassroots organization Vocal NY asked what the candidates would do the deter police and prosecutorial misconduct and what would be the career consequences for Assistant DAs that commit misconduct, such as withholding evidence. Later, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, asked what the candidates would do to ensure fair prosecutions of crimes involving police officers -- like the trial involving officers who shot and killed her son -- and that misconduct investigations were swift, thorough, and unbiased.

Cabán said that public defense offices already have lists of “bad officers” and that as DA she would publish these lists and not rely on those officers’ testimony in cases. She also said that prosecutors should undergo retraining to prevent misconduct and that “anyone who wears a badge and commits a crime should be held accountable independent of conflicts of interest.”

Katz vowed that misconduct “won’t be stood for in my office” and that prosecutors would have to follow her reform policies. She also said that the state attorney general’s office should investigate police brutality accusations, not just police killings of unarmed individuals as is currently the case based on an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Lancman cited the City Council hearings that he has held on police misconduct and the history of misconduct in the Queens DA office. He asserted that “reforms prevent wrongful convictions” and that he would implement a broader code of conduct. He would use personnel in the DA’s office to investigate police misconduct, he added.

Nieves said that Assistant DAs that commit misconduct “would be fired” and that he would create a civil rights bureau within the office to investigate police misconduct with personnel from the DA’s office. He also said that police officers who commit perjury should be prosecuted. Lugo said that her office would have “no tolerance for discrimination” and “firm but fair prosecutions.” On the issue of investigations, she said that Assistant DAs “should know the communities they’re prosecuting in” and this would make investigations more equitable.

Lasak brought up his previous experience in the DA’s office, saying that “prosecutors under me knew they couldn’t [commit misconduct]” and that his leadership would set the example for his office. He also said he would use the DA’s investigators in police misconduct cases, not the NYPD.

Malik wrote that she will work to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. "As District Attorney, I will institute agency-wide trainings on Brady, discovery, witness interviews and preparation, suspect interviews, implicit bias, cultural competency and anti-racism." She promised a DA's office that is "for the first time, representative of the community it serves at the leadership level and hire a dedicated ethics officer to assist in ensuring our attorneys are always above reproach when practicing law."

Sex Work Decriminalization
Jennifer Orellana, a transgender former sex worker and member of Make the Road New York, asked the candidates for their views on the decriminalization of sex work. The Queens DA would potentially be able to decline to prosecute sex workers, as well as their customers and others involved in sex work, like landlords. Most of the candidates agreed that the DA’s office needs to change how it handles sex work crimes, mostly with a focus on the sex workers themselves, though they spoke about sex work in varied terms.

Cabán committed to declining to prosecute sex work-related offenses, including sex workers and those that participate in the sex work industry. She also said that the trans and sex work communities need to be protected. Katz said that sex work offenses should be “diverted into human trafficking courthouses.” She would not prosecute and make resources available to prevent recidivism, she said, while also indicating a belief that all sex workers need to be helped to find a different line of work and path in life.

Lancman would also decline to prosecute and would direct sex workers to diversion programs, in addition to focusing on sex trafficking and human traffickers.

Nieves would similarly decline to prosecute, calling sex work “a non-violent and consensual crime” and that he “won’t waste resources” on it. He would also create a human trafficking unit.

Lugo would consider declining to prosecute and instead implement a diversion program. She also brought up the need to focus on sex trafficking. Lasak was the only candidate against fully declining to prosecute, saying that “the impact on the broader community needs to be looked at” and that sex work lowers the quality of life for residents in affected neighborhoods.

Malik wrote her "position to decline to prosecute for sex workers and to vacate prostitution records is informed by a career of defending women suffering sex abuse and working with victims to come forward. We should be investing in resources to help sex workers get treatment and services where needed, while diverting enforcement toward those who profit off of, prey on and traffic sex workers."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Bail Reform
The topic of bail reform also generated a wide consensus among the candidates. Though there are ongoing negotiations in the state capital around major bail reform that could impact the next Queens District Attorney, the candidates were asked about what their policies would be if no changes are made at the state level.

All the candidates agreed to reduce the use of cash bail for at least minor and non-violent offenses, with some candidates saying that they would end the practice entirely.

Cabán pledged to end cash bail “to the fullest extent” and that her office would “release people as often as possible,” including on some violent alleged crimes. Katz agreed to end cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies automatically, but for violent felonies supervision should be looked at as an alternative. Lancman committed to never asking for cash bail and would expand eligibility for release “to the maximum extent of the law,” noting that Kalief Browder was kept on Rikers Island after not being able to post bail upon being arrested for what is essentially a non-violent crime of stealing a backpack, for which he never formally faced charges and was eventually released, later killing himself.

Nieves committed to no cash bail for all offenses and that he would use appearance bonds instead of cash bonds. Appearance bonds usually stipulate that a defendant would pay a fine if they do not appear for their court date. Lugo said she would handle the issue on a case-by-case basis and that non-violent crimes would not have cash bail, except for “major drug cases,” like El Chapo.

Lasak agreed to no cash bail for minor offenses, but would keep the policy in place for other charges.

Rikers Island Closure and Proposed New Jail in Queens
The candidates were asked if they support the closure of Rikers Island and also if they support the proposed new community jail in Queens.

Cabán was the only candidate to support the closure of Rikers Island and also oppose the new community jail in Queens. She said that she did not support building new jails because she “doesn’t want them filled.” Perhaps along with Lancman, she has outlined the most aggressive decarceration plan in the race, though he said that Rikers must be closed and also supports the new community jail.

Katz supports closing Rikers Island and also the construction of a community jail in Queens.

Nieves supports the closure of Rikers and opposed the construction of “mega-jails” in Queens. Lugo said she wants to see the current facilities on Rikers Island closed, but wants new facilities on the island that would separate violent and non-violent offenders. Lasak wants to keep the jails on Rikers Island open.

Malik wrote that she believes "it is critical that the community in Queens has its voice and concerns fully heard" but that "the closing of Rikers should also be taken as an opportunity for us as New Yorkers to totally reject the violent culture of Rikers by designing new detention facilities that treat everyone with dignity and aggressively support their reentry. Community detention centers that treat people with dignity and allow people to have more regular contact with their loved ones and support systems have proven to result in reduced recidivism."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Police in Schools/School-to-Prison Pipeline
The candidates were asked about their views on police in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline by an activist with the Rockaway Youth Task Force.

Cabán asserted the “need to get police officers out of school” and that “students of color have been criminalized.” Her position is that her office would “decline to prosecute children whenever possible,” and instead “engage in restorative justice.”

Katz said “police officers aren’t the only answer to school safety,” but may be necessary in some cases. She believes that diversion programs could work better and that there are currently “too many officers” in schools. Lancman committed to not prosecuting “low-level offenses from schools” and that these would be handled in schools and youth court.

Nieves compared over-policed schools to Rikers Island and said his office would give students opportunities instead for low-level offenses and deal with felonies in family court. Lugo said that low-level offenses “should be handled in school,” but supports police being present in schools.

Lasak also said that he wants police in schools and that his office would instead focus on “bridging the gap between the community and the courthouse,” through education programs involving young people.

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

Immigration
On the topic of immigration, candidates were asked if they would consider mitigating immigration consequences in prosecutorial decisions. Immigrants, including legal residents, could face deportation for certain offenses or even based on what prosecutors say in court statements.

Cabán vowed to “keep ICE out of courthouses” and “make sure the DA’s office doesn’t do anything to further deportation,” including taking immigration status into consideration for pleas, charges, and court statements. Katz promised to have “deportation-neutral” charges and pleas. Lancman suggested that the office would hire a “collateral offense officer” to look at mitigating the immigration consequences of prosecutions.

Nieves noted that immigration is an important factor for both victims and suspects, saying that victims and witnesses are often afraid to come forward for fear of being deported. Similar to other candidates, he committed to mitigating the immigration consequences of the office’s prosecutions. Lugo vowed to block ICE from courts and to set up an immigration affairs bureau, which would include interpreters. Lasak promised to mitigate immigration consequences only for minor offenses.

Malik wrote that she "will implement an immigrant hardship plea policy. Whenever compatible with public safety, I will direct prosecutors to consider collateral consequences when charging noncitizens. We have to ensure the sentence matches the offense and that we are not tearing families apart or leveling disproportionate sentences."

[LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19)]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been updated with Mina Malik's responses.

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Candidates for Queens District Attorney Profess Similar Values, Stake Out Different Positions Tue, 19 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8357-listen-queens-district-attorney-candidate-debate alyssaguilera vocal

3/12 Queens DA debate (photo: @alyssaguilera)


Six of the seven candidates for Queens District Attorney gathered for a debate on Tuesday, March 12 at CUNY Law School in Long Island City, sponsored by a broad range of reform groups that have formed the "Queens for DA Accountability Coalition" and moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max and Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout. This year, Queens will elect its first new District Attorney since 1991. The Democratic primary is June 25. The six participating candidates at Tuesday's forum were Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Gregory Lasak, Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves. The seventh candidate in the race, Mina Malik, was unable to attend due to illness.

Listen to the full debate via the embedded audio below, or you can find it in the "Max & Murphy" podcast stream from Gotham Gazette wherever you get your podcasts. [Read more about the candidates and the race here: 'We're in a New Era': Inside the Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney.]

 

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LISTEN: Queens District Attorney Candidate Debate (3/12/19) Thu, 14 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8326-crowded-race-election-queens-district-attorney-and-reset-prosecutorial-agenda dwamhvfwoaejtul

Queens Borough President Katz swears-in community board members (photo: @QueensBPKatz)


Uncontested for seven terms spanning more than a quarter-century, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has hung back while his counterparts in Brooklyn and Manhattan join a growing national conversation about criminal justice reform and the power of prosecutors to decarcerate jails. While the retiring Brown is a “dear friend,” former New York Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman told Gotham Gazette recently, “it’s time for a new prosecutor with new, up-to-date modern views.”

Answering that call, six of seven announced candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are campaigning as the best progressive reformer for the job. Even the exception, self-described “middle of the road” attorney Betty Lugo, has aligned herself with the pack in promising fewer low-level prosecutions and condemning a surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests outside Queens courts.

The June 25 election will almost certainly determine Brown’s successor and reset the prosecutorial tone in a vast, diverse borough of more than two million residents. “We’re really looking for someone who works with the community and understands that we’re in a new era. We’re no longer in a tough-on-crime, war on drugs era,” said 18-year-old Andrea Colon, a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, one of several criminal justice and immigrant rights groups demanding change in the office.

But Queens is an ideological patchwork. “It's an older voter, especially out east where it's more suburban,” said one party insider, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They don't like people who jump turnstiles. They don’t want people smoking [marijuana] on the streets.” Former Queens Supreme Court judge and county prosecutor Greg Lasak, who’s pitching himself as the only candidate who can properly balance public safety with reform, has endorsements and donations from a number of law enforcement unions, including court clerks and officers. He's leading in funds raised for this race, with more than $800,000 to date, but trails Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Rory Lancman in money available given their resources from prior campaign accounts.

Conversations with each candidate -- prosecutors Jose Nieves and Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán round out the field -- reveal real differences: on prosecutorial priorities and experience, as well as how they view the scope of the job. Now that the term progressive has wide application, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, “we have to push and get into the fine print.”

Prosecutorial Differences
Katz and Lancman are both established politicians with law degrees, strong name recognition in the borough, and early fundraising success. Both formerly served in the state Assembly. “I think there needs to be a change in focus in the DA’s Office,” Katz told Gotham Gazette, outlining her plan for new bureaus focused on immigrant rights, housing fraud, and worker rights.

But Katz -- who recently won the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party -- has proposed narrower prosecutorial reforms than most of the pack, pledging along with Lasak only to decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. By contrast Lancman, Cabán, Malik, and Nieves have all outlined do-not-prosecute lists including fare evasion, drug possession, and prostitution -- in the style of recently-elected reform district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins Boston.

Judge Lippman told Gotham Gazette that though he doesn’t typically endorse candidates, Lancman, the first candidate to enter the race, “was always the first one to be there to generate support for a new view for criminal justice.” But the City Council member has lots of company now. He, Cabán, and Nieves have all pledged to never request cash bail, on the grounds that it perpetuates racial- and class-based inequities.

Four of the candidates -- Malik, Nieves, Lasak, and Lugo -- tout their prosecutorial experience. Malik, who is originally from Queens, served most recently as a deputy for the District of Columbia Attorney General. She also helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson implement a policy for fewer marijuana prosecutions. Like Lasak, she’s served in the very office she’s running to lead. “Queens deserves someone who can come into the DA’s office, know from day one how it operates,” Malik told Gotham Gazette.

Nieves, meanwhile, emphasizes his recent experience prosecuting police officers at the state attorney general’s office and holding “the system itself accountable.”

Cabán’s status as the only public defender in the race, most recently with New York County Defender Services, has won her endorsements from ascendant groups on the left. “Her ultimate responsibility is to the public and that's what it's always been,” said Zohran Mamdani, an electoral organizer with the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in Jackson Heights this month, Cabán said she’ll fight for defendants, not convictions. As a queer Latina from a low-income family, she relates to the challenges her clients face. “For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” she said.

How the candidates approach the prosecution of violent crimes, from murder to burglary, is another useful differentiator. Most say that fewer misdemeanor cases will free up resources to prosecute violent crimes. In endorsing Lasak, Glen Damato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, praised “his work putting away Queens’ most violent criminals and his compassion in exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”

When Katz was a child, a drunk driver struck and killed her mother. She said that if she’s elected district attorney cases involving intoxicated driving are going to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law, in my administration.” She said life sentences can be justified “on a case by case basis” while Lancman, Nieves, and Cabán say they’ll never request such a sentence.

Cabán has been most vocal about a less punitive approach to violent crime. She says her father, a retired elevator mechanic, has struggled with alcoholism and that her grandfather, a veteran with PTSD, was abusive. Incarcerating people for repeat violent behavior “is not changing the behavior,” Cabán said, calling for a shift in funding towards alternatives such as mental health services. "Sometimes that means showing compassion for someone who does harm."

Race Strategy
Increasingly, district attorney candidates are expected to weigh in on political debates outside the courtroom. Lancman and Cabán, for example, have promised not to join the statewide district attorney association, which has recently lobbied against pretrial reforms currently up for consideration in Albany, like open file discovery and the elimination of cash bail.

Everyone but Lasak, who declined to weigh in, told Gotham Gazette they support the city’s commitment to close the jails on Rikers Island. Cabán and Nieves have taken this a step further, saying they oppose replacing them with new or revamped jails across the city. “I don't think we need 40-story super structures to house more people,” Nevies said. “I think we need less people incarcerated.”

Cabán is also refusing corporate donations: a position that aligns her with other DSA-endorsed New York candidates like Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Doing so, Cabán says, will reassure Queens residents that she’s not afraid to prosecute landlords or employers accused of wage theft.

Lancman is dismissive of the stance. “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight,” he scoffed. “I am not in this race to lose but claim a moral victory and then see black and brown people terrorized.”

Voters are also considering candidates’ proximity to the Queens County Democratic Party. Its endorsement of Katz is bad optics for both, according to Jesse Rose, founder of the New Queens Democrats, a progressive civic engagement group that has endorsed Cabán. “It was just absurd to me,” he said. “They didn’t have a forum. They didn’t have a vetting process. They didn’t ensure that there was transparency in any way.” (The party did not respond to a request for comment, but has defended its process to the Queens Daily Eagle.)

The dynamic isn’t a major concern for Lugo. A singer by hobby, she says she even performed the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy at a recent county party dinner. “I think had they interviewed me they would have found me the most qualified, but it is what it is,” she said.

But Katz, who has won two borough-wide elections, seems to be downplaying her endorsement. She plans to implement a grassroots strategy with “a volunteer army knocking on doors,” according to Doug Forand, a campaign advisor with Red Horse Strategies. “She'll be reaching out broadly, and engaging the newer voters who are bringing new energy into Democratic primaries, and we look forward to earning their support."

The groups already rallying around Cabán have proven formidable in this realm, knocking on doors for Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, protesting the ill-fated Amazon campus in Queens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their activity [and] endorsement means something considerable, even in Queens, which still has conservative areas,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Regardless of who wins in June, advocates are hopeful that this election will increase awareness across the borough that district attorneys are powerful, and elected by their constituents.

“This not about winning an election,” explained Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform, among other issues. “It's about, how do you get into the public narrative and get people in Queens talking about criminal justice reform, the power of prosecutors, and how you hold them accountable?”

Gotham Gazette is cosponsoring a candidate debate on March 12 at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Note: soon after this article was published, DA Brown announced that due to health issues he would be stepping down as district attorney effective June 1. His chief assistant, John M. Ryan, will run the office in his absence.

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that Lasak leads in funds raised for this race, though he does trail Katz and Lancman in funds available.

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'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda Mon, 04 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8078-agenda-2019-queens-district-attorney-race-will-center-on-push-for-reform city council ar rl jw dr marij

Rory Lancman (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Off-year elections in New York City, like the one next year, tend to hold little significance and command minimal attention, with few positions on the ballot and no headlining executive race like mayor or governor. But in Queens, next year will offer a momentous opportunity for voters to make a decision that could dramatically affect the lives of residents of the country’s most diverse county and potentially establish a new paradigm for criminal justice there, with reverberations beyond.

In 2019, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a Democrat who has held his seat for 28 years, is not expected to run for reelection, and those seeking to replace him have made clear that they would break from his tough-on-crime policies that they say have disparately and adversely affected low-income communities of color and modernize the office. As the top prosecutor in each county, district attorneys hold substantial authority over how the law is enforced, working in conjunction with the police. They have broad investigatory powers and can bring both criminal charges and civil litigation.

The Queens DA’s office under Brown is among the last to embrace a shift in the conversation around criminal justice away from a punitive system to one focused more on rehabilitation and restoration. Brown, 85, has done little to break from the conservative practices of what appears to be a bygone era, especially in New York City and other big cities around the country. The race to replace him is likely going to be a contentious competition to see who can promise the most drastic shifts toward progressive prosecutorial conduct.

Unlike the district attorneys in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, Brown has been slower to ease the prosecution of low-level offenses, including for marijuana arrests and fare evasion, largely ignored calls for reducing or ending the use of cash bail, and has rejected funding that would allow his office to set up a dedicated unit to investigate wrongful convictions. Following the lead of other district attorneys and after repeatedly declining to do so, his office did move to clear hundreds of thousands of outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

In the first half of this year, Queens disproportionately accounted for the number of pre-trial detainees in jail accused of misdemeanors, according to a Gothamist report. Those prosecutions additionally impact undocumented immigrants, who could potentially face deportation stemming from low-level charges. And as the city moves to close the Rikers Island jail complex, Brown’s office has indicated that it would prefer it remain open.

Having remained in office for the better part of three decades, and with his well-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Brown is widely expected to finish his time in office at the end of next year (he hasn’t said if he will resign before his term ends). “My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year,” Brown said in a statement.

“He’s been a tough as nails prosecutor. He doesn’t seem to want to implement any progressive reforms to the laws under his jurisdiction and under his authority,” said Jon McFarlane, a Queens resident for 40 years and a volunteer at Court Watch NYC, a collaboration among three advocacy groups aimed at monitoring cases that makes their way through the criminal courts. “He’s had tremendous power over the last two, two-and-a-half decades and he’s only used that power to criminalize black, brown and Latino people.”

agenda19v2 aMcFarlane said that advocates have “new hope” that progressive reforms will soon pass in the state Legislature and that Brown’s replacement will be someone who institutes reform rather than punishment. “We’re looking for candidates that will end the prison pipeline out of [our] neighborhoods, we’re looking for candidates that will end mass incarceration, we’re looking for progressive candidates that will implement bail reform,” he said.

Two Democrats have already declared their intentions to seek the office. The first to jump into the race was New York City Council Member Rory Lancman, who is running as a progressive diametrically opposed to the office’s current policies. “The criminal justice system is broken,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s racist. It’s discriminatory against poor people. It fails to protect working people and we’re gonna reform it from top to bottom.”

The other candidate in the race right now is retired Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a veteran prosecutor who says he alone knows how to reform that office since he worked there for 25 years. “The district attorney is not a job for a politician,” Lasak said in a phone interview. “You have to have the experience and the skill because you’re making decisions that affect people’s lives...and I think there’s nobody that has the wealth of experience that I have in doing that and I will continue to do that.”

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has long been rumored to be considering a bid as well but has yet to make any announcements. A nongovernmental spokesperson for Katz declined to comment. And Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former Queens assistant district attorney, might also jump into the race, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report. Malik declined to comment in an email to Gotham Gazette.  

Advocates for criminal justice reform have made clear that no matter the candidates, they believe there must be changes in how the office treats the people of Queens, particularly the communities of color that have suffered the ill effects of a system of mass incarceration. On October 30, advocates from several organizations rallied outside the Queens Criminal Courthouse, demanding those reforms from the district attorney’s office now.

Andrea Colon, community engagement organizer at the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said the next district attorney should not be “a factor” in mass incarceration. “I think anyone can see that [DA Brown] is a defender of the status quo,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Colon said the diversity of the borough should be reflected in the DA’s office and that the next officeholder should move away from a punitive approach to the job. “It’s also about being an advocate, making sure that role is not just simply about prosecuting people who come through your door,” she said. “It’s about advocating for things like legislation up in Albany or in the city that will impact the people of Queens.”

Lancman has spent years doing just that, he said in the interview, previously as a member of the State Assembly and as a Council member for the last five years — in his first term, he chaired the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which was redesigned by the new Council speaker this year to create a separate Committee on the Justice System which Lancman now heads. He believes he is the most progressive of any candidate in the race, even if those rumored to join the race do so. “As a government official I’ve expressly taken on the responsibility of trying to reform the criminal justice system and have used the governmental tools at my disposal to reform the criminal justice system.”

Though he has spent years in government, Lancman does not have any prosecutorial experience, having worked as an attorney in private practice and teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He holds a law degree from Columbia Law School.

A vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, Lancman has attempted to pass bills that would make policing more transparent and accountable and has been successful in small ways, in lieu of state action, in making it easier to pay bail. He has tried to make the use of a chokehold by police illegal -- it is currently only banned by department rules — and, after the NYPD refused to release data on arrests for fare-beating as required by a law that Lancman sponsored, he sued the city.

As district attorney, Lancman said he would unilaterally implement many of the reforms that have languished in the state Legislature for years, but which are expected to finally pass with both legislative chambers heading to Democratic control come January -- Republicans who have controlled the Senate blocked many of the bills. Lancman said he wouldn’t prosecute a “laundry list” of low-level offenses “that are giving black and brown kids records for the rest of their lives,” would not ask for cash bail “under any circumstance,” would end the so-called “ready rule” practice that DAs use to deny defendants a speedy trial and implement full open-file discovery. He also expressed support for a bill passed this year by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo establishing a first-in-the-nation commission on prosecutorial misconduct.

“There’s nothing that’s out of the DA’s hand,” he said, before making a somewhat veiled reference to Lasak. “That’s the important thing to understand. The people who built the Queens DA’s office are not the ones to reform the Queens DA’s office and every criminal justice reform that matters to people can be accomplished by having the right person as Queens DA.”

He continued, “It’s not merely to confront the racism and discrimination against poor people that permeates the criminal justice system but also to refocus the office’s priorities to help working people.” He said he would focus on issues such as wage theft and unsafe workplace conditions, predatory housing practices and tenant harassment, and sexual assault. “We waste all this time and energy prosecuting these low level offenses, fighting to keep people in jail just because they don’t have money, playing games with the discovery rules that make it impossible for people to defend themselves in court, instead of focusing on things that are really making working people unsafe,” he said.

“The DA’s office is unique in that it requires serious preparation and a very detailed understanding of the office and a detailed commitment to the issues the office confronts,” Lancman said, “and I will put that level of demonstrated commitment, experience and planning up against any candidate in the race.”

lasak for DAOf course, Lasak (pictured) believes he is the candidate who brings the most experience to the table, not Lancman. “There’s no comparison in terms of experience,” he said in a phone interview. A hard-nosed prosecutor with more than two decades experience in the Queens DA’s office, Lasak became chief of the homicide division when he was 30. When Brown took over, Lasak was the executive assistant DA of the major crimes division and was later in charge of the homicide investigations and homicide trial bureaus and the special victims bureau, and he set up the office’s domestic violence bureau. “Most of my career’s been dedicated to combating violent crime,” he said.

Heading up homicide prosecutions for nearly two decades earned Lasak the moniker “Mr. Murder.” He wasn’t sure where it originated from — a New York Times profile from 2003, when Lasak was elected State Supreme Court Justice, offered little about the origins of the name — but how does he feel about it? “Doesn’t bother me,” he said with a chuckle.

Lasak’s argument is that he can reform the office because he is intimately familiar with how it works. “To reform the place, you can’t sit looking at it from the outside if you don’t know how it works on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Though his background smacks of the type of stern policies Brown’s office is known for, he is making a softer pitch as a candidate, similar to Lancman’s. He wants to reform bail procedures, ensure speedy trials and discovery reform.

“I’ve been out of that office nearly 15 years. The world has changed, Queens has changed, but the office has to change too,” he said. “The assistant district attorneys in the office should reflect the changing demographics of Queens County, the most diverse county in the world, and the office has not changed along those lines. I want it to reflect the diversity of our population here in Queens, including at the highest levels of the office.”

He said he’d take a “good hard look” at how the office handles low-level nonviolent offenses and bail. “My rule when I was there was, if you’re not gonna ask for jail time at the end of the case, you have no business asking for bail at the beginning of the case, and I will make sure that is a policy of the office,” he said, particularly cognizant of how the enforcement of small marijuana possession cases has impacted communities of color. “Once you stick a criminal record on a young man, you scar him for life. I don’t want to do that. We’re losing too many young men, especially in the minority community...I want to give them another chance,” he said.

He also stressed that, as DA, he would ensure any potential wrongful convictions are reviewed by senior prosecutors and detectives, as he said he used to do when he worked there.

There is, however, greater daylight between Lasak and Lancman on the proposed plan for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. In September, Lancman publicly debated a Queens assistant district attorney about the closure of the jails on the island -- the Queens DA and Staten Island DA are the only two in the city opposing the plan. Lancman, who supports it, said he will make it a central campaign issue “because where you stand on Rikers and where you have been on Rikers tells us everything we need to know about where you stand on reforming the criminal justice system and what kind of DA you will be.”

Lasak said he has not closely studied the Rikers plan, which includes demolishing the current Queens detention facility and building a newer, more modern one so detainees can be housed closer to their homes and to the courthouse. Lasak pointedly refused to take a position on it, despite being repeatedly asked. “Rikers Island is really not an issue for the district attorney,” he said. “My concern is that people who are on Rikers Island, make sure they belong on Rikers Island. I don’t want anyone sitting on Rikers Island that doesn’t belong there.”

Advocates intend on holding the candidates, whoever should win, accountable for their words.

“I think it’s one thing to say that you’re for criminal justice reform,” said Colon from Rockaway Youth Task Force, “and it’s another to actually act on that.”

Nick Malinowski of VOCAL-NY, one of the groups that make up Court Watch NYC, put the Queens DA’s race in the context of a national movement and growing awareness around prosecutorial accountability and the discretionary powers that district attorneys have at their disposal. “I think there’s a growing understanding across the country about the impact that prosecutors have and that kind of movement and understanding is definitely coming to Queens,” he said.

Malinowski pointed to the recent elections of progressive reform-minded district attorneys in other states -- Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts -- as an example of where Queens should be headed. Considering the size and diversity of New York City’s second-most populous borough, he said that this election could be one of the most consequential in the city, if not the entire nation -- the Bronx and Staten Island DAs are up for reelection next year, but Queens is expected to be the lone ‘empty seat’ race.

“I think there’s a good case for the Queens DA to be the single-most progressive DA in the country,” Malinowski said.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Agenda 2019: Queens District Attorney Race Will Center on Push for Reform Thu, 15 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000