The six Democratic candidates seeking to be the next district attorney in Queens on stage at the CUNY School of Law on Tuesday were distinguished as much by what they represented as they were by their policies.
This isn’t to say that the range of views expressed were uniform. Yes, the candidates largely agreed for the need to eliminate cash bail, keep low-level offenders off Rikers Island and have more resources available at those entering and departing the criminal justice system.
And, while there were substantive viewpoint differences, it was as much their backgrounds and what they represented in the race that defined them.
There were the two currently elected politicians, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and City Councilman Rory Lancman. Katz, who enjoys the support of much of the Queens Democratic Party establishment, presented herself as a bucks-stops-with-me leader who will drive change from the top of the organizational heap.
Lancman sought to wear the mantle of dedicated reform who has spent his time in the council championing efforts to change the system from the inside out, earning him the support of high-profile reformers like Jonathan Lippman and Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother.
Pacheco & Lugo name attorney Betty Lugo and former New York Attorney General deputy chief Jose Nieves were the former prosecutors whose experiences showed them the need for change. Lugo, the first Latina to serve as a prosecutor in the Nassau County DA’s office, talked as much about her concern for victims as reforms to the system.
Nieves’ argued his career on the front lines—from the courtroom as Manhattan state prosecutor to the battlefield in Afghanistan and the prison tiers at Rikers—provided him a unique understanding of the challenges facing the DA’s office.
Add to this list Gregory Lasak, who was most recently a state Supreme Court justice and served for more than two decades in the Queens DA’s office alongside the retiring Richard Brown. Lasak positioned himself simultaneously as the best change agent available for the office while being the candidate who knew the ins and outs of that same office like no other. Court law enforcement unions have lined up behind his candidacy.
If Lasak sits at one end of the spectrum, veteran public defender Tiffany Cabán sits at the other. With her willingness to stake out a progressive position that consistently outflanks all the other candidates, it’s little surprise Cabán has secured the support of the Queens branch of the politically ascendant Democratic Socialists of America.
During the two-hour forum hosted by activist organization Voices of Community Activists & Leaders on the CUNY School of Law campus, the candidates were asked a range of questions by the moderators, Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max and Fordham University School of Law professor Zephyr Teachout.
One of the more-illuminating rounds of answers came after Teachout asked about how the candidates would approach the prosecution of and sentencing for violent crime in the borough.
Katz started out by declaring it “a fact” that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects communities of color. She would make sure the DA’s office “fairly and equitably” prosecuted crimes. She said she believed it was to prosecute fairly, though that couldn’t be accomplished without an increase in resources for divergence and social programs for even violent offenders.
Caban followed, arguing that the issue was to try to prevent violent crime in the first place by following community-led deterrence initiatives. She said those who committed violent crimes need to be viewed as themselves likely the victims of violence and trauma, who were better served through programs and treatment rather than incarceration which, she said, “doesn’t work.”
The DA’s office was at fault for overcharging and need to be restrained from its excesses, Nieves told the packed room. He, too, suggested alternatives to incarceration and divergence programs, even for violent offenders, need to be an option to address underlying issues driving individuals’ behavior rather than cycling them through the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system.
The situation was framed in terms of a family issue by Lugo. She said she herself was a victim of violent crime, and her mother domestically abused. By hiring “the best” mental health and social workers in the DA’s office, she would take a “hands-on” approach focused on victims, rather than solely as a question of prosecution.
The former judge took the opportunity to relate the grisly details from his time in the DA’s office. According to Lasak, a judge allowed a defendant who was estranged from his family go free, over the objections of prosecutors. Later, Lasak said the wife and the two sons were found to have been decapitated with an ax, presumably by the defendant. He urged caution when dealing with those who commit violent acts, some of whom he said must be incarcerated as a matter of public safety.
For Lancman, the issue was part of the larger one of mass incarceration. To truly address it, he argued, prosecutors and policy-makers can’t count on “the low-hanging fruit” of misdemeanors and the like. Violent acts needed to be included in the conversation of reform. Charging decisions, choices of bail and divergence programs needed to consider make those accused of violent acts eligible for reform-minded shifts away from incarceration.
Not in attendance at the forum was former Civilian Complaint Review Board executive director Mina Malik. A spokesman for her campaign said she was dealing with an acute illness but planned to respond to all the questions in written form.
The primary election for district attorney will be held on June 25.