Candidates for Queens District Attorney talk justice reform and campaign contributions at forum

Photo: Mark Hallum/QNS

Candidates for Queens District Attorney spoke on justice reform issues which are coming to define the race at a forum in Jackson Heights on Monday night.

While some candidates claimed there was no conflict from contributions accepted from PACs and the real estate industry, all pledged to not cooperate with ICE in deportation attempts and the effort to close Rikers Island.

“Campaign finance reform is overdue,” Democratic candidate Jose Nieves said. “Candidates can self-impose campaign finance reform … It doesn’t mean just because the money is there we have to take it.”

Councilman Rory Lancman argued that he is fighting to end “the new Jim Crow” affecting people of color and that corporate contributions would not impact his mission.

“I am not bringing a knife to this gunfight,” Lancman said. “I accept funding from all those who are legally allowed to contribute and we are going to take our message of reforming this criminal justice system throughout the borough and win this race.”

Borough President Melinda Katz’s claim that her contributions from real estate developers would pose no conflict was challenged by New Vision Democratic Club moderators with a special question, to which she claimed it had never been an issue in her career.

“Any district attorney should be able to show they are independent no matter where they get their money,” Katz said. “My history has cost developers hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m not sure how many other people can say that.”

Retired Judge Gregory Lasak said he would take a stance against deportation by hiring immigration attorney’s in the DA’s office and making an effort to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents away from courthouses on account of the disruptions they could cause.

“I don’t want them interfering with the administration of justice in our county,” Lasak said.

Tiffany Cabán criticized the close Rikers plan as simply an excuse to build new jails whereas she believes the only way to de-carcerate is by ending detention altogether.

“You can and should close Rikers on a much faster timeline than the 10-year proposal,” Cabán said before clarifying her stance. “In that minuscule number of cases where somebody has to be removed from their community for the safety of themselves and others, we will do it.”

Betty Lugo said she plans to create a community outreach unit and a network with faith-based organizations to build programs to act as alternatives to incarceration.

“I believe the people of the county are the best to judge and to decide what’s the best for how to deal with a situation,” Lugo said. “It takes a village, once you involve the community in what’s happening – the more you’re involved – the more you respect the criminal justice system.”

The plan to close Rikers by 2026 includes proposal four borough-based jails, including one which could stand up to 26 stories at 1.2 million square feet in Kew Gardens. While many, such as Lasak and Lugo, are in favor of updating Rikers, others such as Lancman, Katz and Nieves are in favor of shuttering the complex and rebuilding in the boroughs.

Not present at the forum was Mina Malik, a former assistant district attorney and a lecturer at Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project.

The Democratic primary for Queens district attorney falls on June 25.

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