By David Brand
José Nieves, a longtime Queens resident and former prosecutor in the office of the state attorney general, officially announced his candidacy at a rally outside the Queens Supreme Courthouse on Sutphin Boulevard on Wednesday.
“I want to redirect the focus of the Queens District Attorney’s Office away from merely charging and incarcerating people,” Nieves said in a statement. “Instead, I want to use the office’s resources to divert non-violent offenders away from the criminal justice system, create meaningful alternatives to incarceration, and keep our community safe by prosecuting violent crimes.”
Before the rally — held outside despite the driving snow — Nieves spoke with the Eagle about his priorities and what differentiates him in a field of candidates championing criminal justice reform.
“In a brief sentence, I have the life experience growing up one of the toughest neighborhoods of the city — East New York — and of having the motivation to change the system from within,” he said. “I also have the professional experience to make those changes happen.”
Nieves earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School* and began an 11-year tenure as an assistant district attorney in the Kings County district attorney's office. During that time, Nieves served in the Army Reserves and prosecuted military officers. He was also deployed to Afghanistan for a year-long tour of duty.
Nieves also served as a prosecutor in the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), handling cases against correction officers.
“I have prosecuted correction officers for excessive force, police officers for causing death of civilians,” he said, citing his work for the DOC and the attorney general’s Office.
Nieves said he would join the District Attorneys Association Of The State Of New York (DAASNY), which has encountered intense criticism from progressives based on its organization’s opposition a state prosecutorial conduct commission and to open discovery reform.
Nieves said he disagrees with DAASNY and believes in the conduct commission and open discovery, however.
“I believe the rules of discovery have to change because we have to push prosecutors to engage in more fair and cooperative discovery, allowing cases to move forward quickly,” he said. “We have to ensure that prosecutors and defense counsel have the same information.”
On the day that NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen was laid to rest after being shot and killed on Feb. 12, Nieves declined to say whether he would seek murder charges against the two men whose alleged robbery attempt led to Simonsen’s death by “friendly fire.”
“I give my deepest condolences to the family of Detective Simonsen and to the 102nd Precinct. It shows us all why it’s so important to fight violent crime and support law enforcement,” he said. “I understand the felony murder count [and] I understand why they’d consider it, but I cannot comment on why specifically they’d decide to make those charges part of the complaint.”
Nieves first filed with the state Board of Election in December 2018 and began fundraising that month. News of his candidacy spread last month when the Democratic Socialists of America released detailed campaign questionnaires completed by Nieves and three other candidates.
In his completed questionnaire, Nieves cited his “progressive view” and said he is running for DA to “bring real criminal justice reform and diversity to the Queens District Attorney's Office.
“I will focus the office’s resources on diverting non-violent defendants away from the criminal justice system, engage in meaningful alternative to incarceration sentencing practices, carefully considering a defendant’s collateral immigration consequences when negotiating plea agreements and identifying new ways to reduce the risk of recidivism of defendants by supporting a defendant’s reentry and reintegration process into our community,” he said in the questionnaire.
Public defender Tiffany Cabán, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmember Rory Lancman, Former Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo and former Queens prosecutor and Civilian Complaint Review Board chair Mina Malik have all announced their candidacies for Queens DA.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Brooklyn College and has been corrected.