In the first competitive district attorney’s race in a generation, the majority of declared candidates seeking to succeed the retiring Richard A. Brown made their case to progressive voters during a forum at CUNY Law School in Long Island City on Tuesday night.
Broadly, the questions asked by moderators Ben Max from the Gotham Gazette and former state Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout revolved around justice reform that will reduce the jail population in the city and prevent recidivism, which the majority seemed to be on board with.
Six out of the seven candidates made it to the forum including Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilman Rory Lancman, retired Judge Gregory Lasak, and attorneys TiffanyCabán, Betty Lugo and Jose Nieves, with only Mina Malik not making it.
Cabán proved popular among the crowd of about 200 people in attendance, including her many vocal supporters. Attendees snapped fingers and clapped to responses in which she advocated abolishing cash bail and not prosecuting sex workers, which was not far off from the views of her opponents.
“On a daily basis, currently, we’re talking about a system that because of those metrics of success of convictions and sentences, we’re dealing with gamesmanship that result in over-charging, withholding of evidence and coerced pleas rather than just asking what the office should be,”Cabán said. “Finding out how we make sure this thing doesn’t happen again and how do we keep our communities safe in actuality.”
On the issue of prosecuting sex workers, the candidates were in agreement that charging people for prostitution is not only a waste of time for the courts, but also risks punishing victims of human trafficking with most either saying they would decline prosecuting in some form or another.
The forum feature comments and questions from three transgender sex workers who asked the candidates what their individual policies would be.
“I would decline to prosecute sex workers, I think that the individuals that engage in that conduct, it’s a non-violent crime, it’s a consensual crime, and I’m not going to waste the resources of the district attorney’s office focusing on those crimes,” Nieves said, explaining that he also supports the movement at the state level to decriminalize sex work. “On top of that, I’m going to open up a human trafficking unit because not all participants in that field are voluntary.”
When it came to the ten-year plan to close Rikers Island to move detainees into borough-based jails, some candidates did not believe the jail population belonged so close to communities favoring rebuilding and reforming facilities on the island.
“You cannot reform Rikers Island, it is a violent dystopian nightmare that has been that way for decades,” Lancman said. “[Detainees] have a right to be close to their families, to be close to home. We as taxpayers have a right to not have to ship them back and forth from Rikers to court everyday. I support the close Rikers plan and if you cannot muster the courage to tell some people in the neighborhood that we’re going to have to re-open a jail that’s been in your neighborhood for decades, I really question your commitment to criminal justice reform.”
Katz said with the way the criminal justice system currently operates, prosecuting and sentencing violent crimes disproportionately effects people of color and that by providing mental health and substance abuse services to people going into the system through resources provide within their communities, racial bias can be abated.
“We need to make sure the office is fairly and equitably prosecuting crimes while also making sure that they are fair and just during the trial,” Katz said. “We need to make sure that we have mental illness help, because a lot of folks need that when they’re going into the system. More important than anything else, we need to make sure that violent crimes are diverted as much as we possibly can… You have start with the community.”
Lasak looked back at the creation of the Domestic Violence Bureau which he created in the DA’s office in the mid-1990s, which came under his supervision when he worked as bureau chief and executive assistant DA, and took a less lenient view on incarcerating violent criminals.
“[Domestic violence] was a very big issue that was confronting the people of Queens at the time and it continues to be,” Lasak said, recalling an crime where an estranged husband, released on his own recognizance, beheaded his wife and two sons in their home with an ax. “We have to be very careful when we deal with violent crime, when we deal with violent criminals. Unfortunately, there are people who must be incarcerated because the DA’s main job is public safety, to keep the public safe.”
Lugo touted her history as an attorney claiming to have opened the first Hispanic woman-owned law firm 27 years ago in the World Trade Center and represented the victims of the Cypress Hills Cemetery who were buried in an illegal landfill in a case involving the state Supreme Court and up to 700 families.
“We took that case on although the attorney general’s office and the DA’s office should have done something about it, but we took it on on our own dime,” Lugo said listing off a number of other responsibilities her firm takes on which make her a good candidate for DA. “We’ve been involved in the community since day one and that’s what keeps us fresh and strong… I am an experienced trial attorney having tried both criminal and civil cases.”
The primary election for the Queens District Attorney will be held on June 25 and will not include sitting DA Richard Brown who declined to run for another term after 27 years as the borough’s top prosecutor.
Brown stepped down early from the office last week citing complications from Parkinson’s disease and assigned his chief executive assistant of 22 years, John Ryan, to take up the mantle until voters make their choice in the November general election.
The debate was hosted by VOCAL-NY, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, among other issues.