Melinda Katz outlines priorities, responds to critics at her inauguration as district attorney

Max Parrott/QNS

The inauguration of Melinda Katz, the first female district attorney of Queens, gathered city and state officials, religious figures and a crowd of hundreds at her alma mater, St. John’s University on Monday.

Katz joined a constellation of officials including Rep. Greg Meeks, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Tish James and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who gave remarks heralding Katz’s stewardship as a pivotal moment for criminal justice reform.

“I was elected, I like to think, because of the trust that I will bring a steady hand in these times of uncertainty — a steady hand, a common-sense hand,” Katz said in her inauguration speech. 

The electeds praised Katz on her creation of the borough’s first conviction integrity unit, and her promise to challenge ICE’s presence at courthouses and crack down on hate crimes. Several also commented on how they thought her history of public service as borough president, a City Council member and an Assembly member prepared her for the office.

“Melinda Katz will still be Melinda Katz no matter what the title is, no matter where she goes. No matter the situation,” said Meeks, who campaigned with Katz in his capacity as chair of the Queens County Democratic Party.

Though Katz’s political supporters filled the bleachers, outside Carnesecca Arena the signs of her turbulent primary battle with Tiffany Cabán persisted. Around a dozen activists from Court Watch NYC and Our Progressive Future showed up to protest Katz’s failure to follow through with her promise to end cash bail completely on her first day in office.

Sharon Lee, who will act as borough president until the office is filled, introduced Katz’s nine-member executive team led by Chief Assistant Jennifer L. Naiburg, a 26-year-veteran of the Queens DA’s office. Four of the incoming members of team are holdovers from former Queens DA Richard Brown’s office, but the team also includes some notable fresh faces like Bryce Benjet, the director of the newly created district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. 

Benjet, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project for the past seven years, has spent most of his career fighting against wrongful convictions. That Conviction Integrity Unit will examine cases to make recommendations for exoneration if someone is found to be wrongfully convicted. 

It’s one of four progressive policy changes that Katz put into effect on day one of her tenure.Others include the abandonment of the 180.80 waiver policy — a reform that allows defendants to enter a plea bargain five days after an indictment without waiving their right to a grand jury.

Katz also eliminated “top count only” plea policy after indictment. The goal of this policy stops defendants from making a choice between going to trial or taking a plea deal based on the top count of their indictment.

She has renamed the Special Prosecutions unit to the Community Partnerships Division to signal its goal of working “with the community to foster communication.”

Katz ended by addressing cash bail. She admitted that though her office did not do away completely with the practice on the first day, she was “committed to ending cash bail in all forms. Period.” She said that this was something that was not achievable without the infrastructure on supervised release yet in place.

“There’s a lot of naysayers and critics. There are those who say we’re not going far enough, there are those who are going too far,” said Katz in closing. “I look forward to that challenge with the trust to do the right thing even though we know we can’t achieve it all in that single day.”