By Mark Hallum
With news that long-time District Attorney Richard Brown will not be seeking re-election, many politicians had mixed emotions about his impending departure, but anticipate a much different criminal justice landscape in Queens.
The three candidates who have so far declared their candidacies for the seat — Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilman Rory Lancman and retired Judge Gregory Lasak — will have to contend with a coalition of 19 organizations comprised of the formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ people, and immigrants who will be calling for the sweeping changes to the way the law is administered.
The Queens for DA Accountability Coalition is made up of Make the Road NY, New Queens Democrats, Rockaway Youth Task Force and VOCAL-NY among others who will gather at the Queens County Criminal Court in Kew Gardens on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“It’s time for change in Queens. Queens DA Richard Brown has been in office since 1991 and is a relic of the tough-on-crime-era that the city and country is trying to move beyond,” a coalition statement said. “He champions fare evasion and marijuana prosecutions, forces people to waive their speedy trial rights, and sends more people to Rikers on misdemeanors than any other District Attorney in the city. Our country is waking up to the role prosecutors play in mass incarceration, and that movement has come to Queens.”
The coalition will call for zero tolerance policy on police brutality, ending cash bail, reducing the jail population by 50 percent in five years, declining to prosecute low-level drug and sex work offenses as well as survivors’ acts of self-defense and trying youths as adults.
“From reducing recidivism to implementing restorative criminal justice programs, our city must make progress and reform our criminal justice system,” state Assemblywoman Nily Rozic said. “It’s critical that the next Queens District Attorney is someone who embodies progressive ideals and works towards a fair and just system that does right by all New Yorkers.”
Brown made the announcement not to run on Jan. 9 in a statement in which he touted progress in reducing violent crime and auto theft as well as enforcing legislation that requires recordings of police interrogations. He also supported programs such as Queens Court Academy and Queens Treatment Intervention Program which respectively give youth a chance to avoid incarceration if they finish school and help address the opioid crisis.
“Queens has been lucky to have Richard Brown as our dedicated and hardworking Queens District Attorney for over 27 years,” state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas said. “We the people of Queens, who elected DA Richard Brown, owe him our gratitude for serving in that office with great honor and integrity.”
Brown was appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1991 and has served ever since.
“As communities demand criminal justice reform, candidates are racing to the left, competing with each other to be the most progressive candidate. But promises mean nothing without a demonstrated commitment to social justice and a willingness to work with grassroots groups that will hold them accountable,” Andrea Colon, Community Engagement Organizer for the Rockaway Youth Task Force, said. “Regardless, we’ll be in the streets and in the courts, protesting, demanding, fighting to liberate our community through an end to mass incarceration that harms communities of color.”
State Assemblyman David Weprin, who chairs the Committee on Corrections, spoke well of Brown’s career, but said he is committed to supporting Katz for DA, believing she will improve outreach to the immigrant communities he represents in eastern Queens.
“These are all communities that really need a district attorney who will reach out to [immigrants] who are often involved in culturally sensitive issues and I think Melinda will be a real asset as DA, getting involved with various communities,” Weprin said. “I think she’ll be very sensitive to domestic violence issues and I think she’ll be sensitive to a lot of cultural issues involving the diversity in Queens.”
City Councilman Robert Holden stood by Brown’s record, claiming his successor will have to a challenge in living up to Brown’s reputation as a prosecutor.
“Richard A. Brown has been a stalwart defender of the law since he was first appointed as Queens District Attorney 27 years ago,” Holden said. “I admire the work he and his staff have done for this county throughout his career, and he has set the standard for every district attorney who will serve after him.”
The parties will decide their nominees for district attorney in the September primary, and the primary winners will face off in the Nov. 5 general election.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall