By David Brand
After months of preparation, District 24 Council Member Rory Lancman officially announced his candidacy for Queens County District Attorney in a video message this morning.
Lancman, whose district includes parts of Fresh Meadows, Kew Gardens Hills, Jamaica and several other neighborhoods, serves as chair of the Council’s Committee on the Justice System. He has been one of the borough’s most vocal advocates for ending the cash bail system, closing Rikers Island jails, ceasing the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses and providing alternatives to incarceration for defendants who commit nonviolent crimes related to opioid abuse.
“Today, I announce my candidacy for Queens District Attorney because it’s time that criminal justice reform comes to Queens,” Lancman said. “Our criminal justice system is broken — it’s profoundly unfair to people of color, the poor, wage-earners, women and immigrants.”
Richard Brown, 86, has served as Queens’ top prosecutor since 1991 but has reportedly indicated that he will not seek reelection when his current term expires in 2019.
Lancman, an attorney, has been an outspoken critic of Brown’s approach to prosecuting low-level offenses, which disproportionately ensnare people of color in the criminal justice system.
At a debate with Assistant District Attorney James Quinn earlier this month, Lancman also said Queens prosecutors fuel mass incarceration by embracing a bail system that keeps low-income defendants — overwhelmingly people of color — in jail because they cannot afford bail.
“The effort to close Rikers Island [is] part of a larger movement to reform a criminal justice system that is dysfunctional, broken and overwhelmingly falls on the backs of poor people,” Lancman said at the debate.
The same movement has empowered progressive prosecutors and DA candidates in various large cities around the country. Earlier this month, attorney Rachael Rollins earned the Democratic nomination for DA in Suffolk County — which includes all of Boston — after she released a list of 15 nonviolent offenses that her office would not prosecute.
In 2017, Philadelphia County — which is coterminous with the city of Philadelphia —elected civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as its district attorney. Krasner immediately dismissed 31 assistant district attorneys who he said were not committed to broad systemic changes.
Lancman, who in July told Politico that it “wouldn’t be unfair” to refer to him as the “Larry Krasner of Queens” told the Eagle that he would also ensure his assistant district attorneys supported his reform policies.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone in the DA’s office,” Lancman told the Eagle. “But if I am elected district attorney, everyone in that office from the junior line staff to the senior executive assistants needs to be enthusiastically on board with the program [or] they’ll need to find somewhere else to work.”
In a memo to staff in February, Krasner instructed assistants DAs to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, to stop charging sex workers with fewer than three convictions and to start beginning plea deals with the lower end of the possible sentencing guidelines.
Like Krasner and Rollins, Lancman said he too would issue a list offenses his office would decline to prosecute, including low-level marijuana offenses, possession of a gravity knife, low-level “buy and bust” arrests, trespassing in parks or NYCHA common areas at night and school fights.
He said he would also ensure that his office reflects “the diversity of Queens.”
“If the office does not reflect the life experiences of people who live in Queens, you’re not going to be able to enact and administer a criminal justice system that is fair and appropriate,” he told the Eagle.
Lancman said he would particularly focus on prosecuting wage theft and sexual assault, which has increased in both Queens North and Queens South over the past year.
He also said he would implement “true open-file discovery.”
“It’s scandalous how the criminal justice system deals with discovery,” Lancman said, adding that discovery reform was one of his top priorities after tackling cash bail.
In a statement announcing his candidacy, Lancman said the criminal justice system is “wasteful and unaccountable” and “needlessly diverts us from attacking real wrongdoing against working people, women, homeowners and tenants, and immigrants.”
Lancman pledged to stop the “over-policing that has terrorized black and brown communities and the criminalization of marijuana possession, end cash bail, cease trial by ambush and confront wrongful convictions that have split apart families.”
He also supports a law, recently signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that would create a prosecutorial misconduct commission and favors the creation of a conviction review unit in Queens.
Ahead of the announcement, Lancman lined up endorsements from various progressive criminal justice reform leaders, including Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr and Sean Bell’s mother Valerie Bell.
“For too long, young men and women of color have been the victims of racist, unequal ‘broken windows’ policing policies,” Carr said in a statement. “Rory has the courage to do what’s right in the face of opposition: he championed legislation that would outlaw the use of the chokehold in the NYPD. I stand with him on that and I stand behind him for District Attorney, so that we may finally see justice in Queens.”
For months, Lancman reportedly considered declaring his candidacy for DA. He raised roughly $800,000 for a then-undisclosed campaign ahead of a late-July campaign finance deadline.
As chair of the City’s Council’s Committee on the Justice System, which oversees the civil and criminal justice system, Lancman has called on district attorneys from all five borough’s to describe their plans for tackling the opioid epidemic without simply incarcerating substance abusers. Last week, he and the Community Service Society of New York sued the city and the NYPD to force them to turn over fare evasion arrest data as mandated by a 2017 city law.
“We are confident once we get this fare evasion data we will force the city to address this discriminatory practice that affects communities of color,” Lancman said at a rally outside the City Hall subway station last week. “There is not a broken windows policing strategy or policy or offense that is not wildly disproportionate based on race. Not one.”
Lancman, who is married to Queens Civil Court Judge Mojgan Lancman, is the first person to officially declare their candidacy for DA.
Former Criminal Court Justice Gregory Lasak, a longtime assistant district attorney who resigned from the bench Sept. 14, is also reportedly considering a run for DA in 2019. Borough President Melinda Katz and State Sen. Michael Gianaris have also reportedly considered entering the race.