DA Candidates Clarify Stances On Cash Bail

Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max (left) and law professor Zephyr Teachout, a former candidate for governor, moderated the forum at CUNY Law.  Eagle  photo by Paul Frangipane.

Gotham Gazette Executive Editor Ben Max (left) and law professor Zephyr Teachout, a former candidate for governor, moderated the forum at CUNY Law. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane.

By David Brand

All seven candidates for Queens district attorney have said they would support significant reforms to the bail system that ensure fewer low-income people, especially people of color, are sent to jail because they cannot afford to pay their bail amount. But three candidates went even further at a candidate’s forum Tuesday night at CUNY School of Law, with each pledging to never request cash bail.

Moderator Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and a former gubernatorial candidate, asked the six DA candidates who attended the forum to drill down on their commitment to bail reform and to describe the offenses for which they would not request bail.

“Given current law and the enormous discretion you would have, what offenses — and please be specific — will be presumptively released on recognizance?” Teachout asked the candidates at the forum, which was hosted by the progressive Queens DA for Accountability Coalition.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán, Councilmember Rory Lancman and former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves each said they would never request cash bail. Former Queens ADA and Civilian Complaint Review Board director Mina Malik missed the forum because she was sick, but told the Eagle she would never request cash bail except in rare circumstances.

“Let’s be real clear: I am never going to ask for cash bail in any circumstance whatsoever. Period. Full-stop,” said Lancman, who has made eliminating cash bail a central focus of his campaign and his work in the city council. “For people who present a flight risk we’re going to expand supervised release.”

Cabán also said she would not ask for cash bail.

“In terms of who presumptively will be released, we need to be releasing to the full extent of the law,” she said. “Releasing folks as often as we can and that includes certain violences as well.”

Cabán specifically cited burglary in the second-degree, a violent felony that could apply to someone accused of swiping packages from the lobby of an apartment building, she said.

“Does that mean you’re not going to release somebody? That makes no sense,” she said.

Nieves proposed utilizing appearance bonds rather than requesting cash bail.

“What we will do as DA is secure people’s return by appearance bonds — unsecured, secured or partially secured — because the intent of bail was to secure return of a person accused of a crime to court,” Nieves said.

Unsecured appearance bonds do not require a defendant pay cash. Partially secured and secured appearance bonds allow defendants to use property as collateral to ensure their return to court.

After the forum, Nieves told the Eagle he requested appearance bonds during his time as an prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office.

Malik, who was sick, responded to Teachout’s question after the forum. She stated that she would enact a presumption of release “in most instances with either release on recognizance or supervised release using the least restrictive means necessary.”

"We should not be putting people in jail simply because they are poor, ever,” Malik said. “As I saw while serving as Deputy to the Attorney General in the District of Columbia, a jurisdiction which has not had cash bail since 1992, cash bail is not necessary to ensure return to court — nearly 90 percent of people released in D.C. make every court appearance.”

The other three candidates at the forum — Borough President Melinda Katz, former Judge Gregory Lasak and attorney Betty Lugo — each committed to not requesting bail on misdemeanor or nonviolent offenses, but differed in their approach to bail for violent offenses.

Katz said she “100 percent” agreed with Cabán’s position on not requesting bail on any offenses, but she did not commit to eliminating cash bail.

“The only caveat I would make is the presumption is going to be no cash bail for any misdemeanor but also for non-violent felonies,” Katz said, referring to a position she first laid out when announcing her candidacy last year. “I think it’s important to note this is not supposed to be a punishment. Bail is simply supposed to make sure you show up at your court date.”

Katz said she would expand supervision and monitoring as well as services for people with mental illness and drug abuse issues while lobbying state lawmakers “for a better system for the entire state.”

Teachout pressed Katz to clarify her position on cash bail.

“There should be no cash bail at all,” Katz said. “The difference is for misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies, the presumption should be released on your own recognizance. For other crimes we need to look at what the circumstances are to see if there is supervised release, to see if there are drug addiction [services] needed, to see if there is mental health help needed.”

Lasak said there should be no cash bail for “minor, nonviolent offenses” and described his experience as an assistant district attorney, where his colleagues used bail “as a ploy to squeeze a plea out of somebody.”

“When I was in DA’s office, I had a policy that if you’re not going to seek jail at the end of the case, you have no business seeking bail at the beginning of the case,” he said.

Lasak said eliminating cash bail would compel judges to remand more defendants, a potential unintended consequence of certain bail elimination proposals described by some activists. He would weigh cases where a defendant is charged with a violent felony on an individual basis, he said.

Lugo also said she would consider each defendant’s circumstances on a case-by-case basis but would “certainly set bail” on wealthy defendants.

“If it’s a drug case and you have an El Chapo who has a lot of money and a lot of property, I would certainly set bail,” Lugo said. “Let him put up the money so we can put some kind of stop to it.”

“But low-level cases, possession absolutely no cash bail,” she said.