Bail reform controversy marks Katz’s first week in district attorney’s office

Max Parrott/QNS

Criminal justice reform advocates persistently protested the first week of Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz tenure, after her office asked for cash bail on her first day – breaking with her campaign promise to end the practice “completely.”

Members of Our Progressive Future and candidates for various political offices rallied on Friday outside Queens County Criminal Court. Then on Monday evening, around a dozen activists from Court Watch NYC and other groups showed up outside Katz’s inauguration to hold the new DA accountable to her campaign promises.

Their complaints have not landed on deaf ears. Katz ended her inauguration speech on Monday night by addressing her critics directly. She admitted that her office did not do away completely with the practice on its first day, but she was still “committed to ending cash bail in all forms. Period.” 

Then she went on to include a caveat.

“That’s a preposterous standard. It was not something that was achievable without the infrastructure on supervised release and all that we need to support that in place. It’s an ongoing process, but we need to make sure that the way we do it is sustainable,” Katz said. 

As the Queens Eagle reported, in the very first case to land in her office on Jan. 1, Katz’s assistant district attorney asked for $50,000 bail before a judge set it for $2,000. The defendant was a man charged with first-degree robbery for allegedly stealing a cellphone after threatening its owner with a sharp object. The public defender representing the defendant asked for him to be released without bail. 

The protests are a form of residue of Katz’s turbulent primary battle with public defender Tiffany Cabán, whose candidacy, her supporters claim, pushed Katz to take her hardline position on all forms of cash bail.

“We are here to make clear that our demands are that she keeps to the promise that she made to all of us here in Queens,” Cabán campaign organizer Zohran Mamdani said outside the inauguration. Mamdani is also a DSA-backed insurgent candidate running for state Assembly in Astoria.

As the protesters addressed attendees walking into the inauguration ceremony, the lawyer who arraigned the $50,000-bail case on Jan. 1 happened to be one of them. The lawyer declined to comment, but her colleague Lori Zeno, the executive director of Queens Defenders, shouted back at the protesters that she thought they were being dishonest. 

Zeno told QNS that the defendant had been arrested for a felony drug case three days prior to his Jan. 1 arrest and pointed out that he violently threatened the complainant with a knife. This is what any DA would do, she said.

“He was also what’s called a discretionary persistent, so if found to be persistent after he was convicted … 25 to life. So he’s kind of a violent guy,” Zeno said. “I’m a public defender, so here I am defending the DA right? And that’s because that’s the fair thing to do.”

On the other hand, many bail reform advocates maintain that bail should not be the means of ensuring people remain incarcerated before trial – whether the crime was violent or not.

“There should not be any way for anyone to be too poor to buy their freedom,” said Katelin Penner, an organizer with Our Progressive Future at both rallies.

In fact, Katz made this very same point in her inauguration speech, before arguing that she would not institute an all-encompassing bail reform policy until she had more resources in place.

“Our system will need to go through changes. But while figuring it out – and we will figure it out – we will keep our communities safe, which is the reason I was elected Queens district attorney,” Katz said.

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