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God Save Queens

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God Save Queens

A looming district attorney election may not bode well for New York City’s second-largest borough. June 20, 2019
New York
Politics and law

According to data provided by the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, more than one-third of people charged in Queens with either homicide or robbery were on probation, parole, or had a pending case at the time of their arrest. These numbers indicate that the criminal-justice system is not keeping the public safe, because people already known to be dangerous are roaming free. But given the field of candidates vying to become Queens district attorney in next week’s primary election, it seems likely that whoever gets the job will only make the problem worse.

Over the past few years, a deep-blue wave has sent a new breed of prosecutor into office in cities across the country. These prosecutors see themselves less as law-enforcement officers than as activists or change agents whose mission is to alter criminal-justice outcomes from within the system. They are more concerned with promoting a progressive vision for criminal-justice reform than with punishing criminals or preventing violent crime. And among the frontrunning DA candidates in the Queens race, these tendencies run deep.

New Yorkers have already gotten a taste of it. In Brooklyn, DA Eric Gonzalez has promised to prioritize consideration of “non-jail resolutions” and to push for the early release of convicted felons. In Manhattan, DA Cy Vance made it official policy to refuse to prosecute disfavored offenses like marijuana possession and fare evasion. Now the progressive-prosecutor movement is knocking on Queens’s door.

One of the leading candidates for Queens DA is Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender. A darling of democratic socialists, she is among the most radical reformers seeking to hold the district attorney’s office in a major American jurisdiction. Like others in New York City, Cabán supports the closing of Rikers Island but shows no interest in building new jails to replace, even partially, the capacity that will be lost by Rikers’ closure. Cabán also wants to raise the charging standard for misdemeanors from probable cause to beyond a reasonable doubt; end cash bail entirely; seek shorter sentences for violent felons; and “prosecute less” by refusing to pursue charges for things like recreational drug use, prostitution, and any other law she deems “racist.”

Such a platform would have been considered toxic for a DA candidate just ten years ago, but times have changed. Cabán’s media profile has grown tremendously this year. New York profiled her in a lengthy puff piece, and she has won endorsements from leading progressive reformers, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and national political figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She also enjoys the support of Yusef Salaam (of the Central Park Five) and the New York Times, which could prove crucial. 

Her interview with New York was particularly revealing, giving readers a key insight to what underlies Cabán’s policy proposals, which—as I’ve argued before—are likely to prove disastrous for residents of communities in which violent crime remains a problem. As Cabán sees it, even violent offenders aren’t really responsible for the crimes they commit. “The only difference,” she told New York, between herself and those who find themselves behind bars “has been either luck or access to certain resources.” In other words, criminals are victims. The New York profile features many of the catchphrases one might hear in an Antifa drum circle or a Middlebury sociology class: “intersectionality,” “generational trauma,” and “trauma-informed practices.” The words “safety” and “punishment” appear only once—both in an explanation for why New York is too harsh on criminals.

The picture that Cabán paints of New York City and State—punitive governments, over-incarcerating legions of nonviolent offenders—bears little resemblance to reality. Less than 2 percent of NYPD arrests result in a prison sentence, and only about 10 percent of NYPD arrests result in a jail admission. Between 1999 and 2016, the state’s prison population decreased by 31 percent; between 1998 and 2018, the city’s jail population fell by about 50 percent. According to Cabán, that’s not good enough—more inmates need to go free. The problem, though, is that the only way to expand decarceration in New York any further is to start turning loose the most violent and chronic offenders. Unfortunately for Queens residents, Tiffany Cabán seems willing to do that.

Photo: Kristina Teschner 

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