DA Candidates Describe Plans For Increasing Office Diversity

Photographer Jonathan Kane captured the diversity of Queens in this 2018 photo, an homage to his father Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day in Harlem," a 1958 image of legendary jazz musicians. Photo by Jonathan Kane via the Queens Tourism Council.

Photographer Jonathan Kane captured the diversity of Queens in this 2018 photo, an homage to his father Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day in Harlem," a 1958 image of legendary jazz musicians. Photo by Jonathan Kane via the Queens Tourism Council.

By David Brand

All seven candidates for Queens District Attorney have pledged to hire more people of color to serve as line prosecutors and executive staff, positioning diversity and representation front and center in the race to become the top prosecutor in the United States’ most diverse county.

In addition to a general commitment to diversity, certain candidates described specific policies and staffing solutions they would implement to ensure the office better reflects Queens, where no single racial or ethnic group makes up more than a third of the population. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, Asian, black/African-Americans, Hispanic/Latinx and white/non Hispanic residents each make up between 20.5 and 28 percent of the borough’s population.

People of color made up roughly 30 percent of the 343 assistant district attorneys (ADAs) employed on Sept. 6, 2018, the Eagle reported earlier this month, based on employment data from the office. That proportion is higher than most county and federal prosecutors’ offices in the region, but still lags behind the character and needs of the borough, each candidate said.

“Growing up in Corona and Elmhurst, I saw that law enforcement — from the police to the prosecutors to the judges — didn’t look like me or my family,” said former Queens prosecutor and Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik, who is of Hispanic and South Asian descent. “During my fifteen years as an assistant district attorney in Queens, I saw firsthand how a failure to represent our diverse communities at the top resulted in harsh, outdated policies for those at the bottom.”

As part of her plan to diversify the office, Malik pledged to hire an executive staff that is “majority women and people of color and inclusive of the LGBTQ community.”

White men occupy nine of the office’s top 12 positions (DA, chief assistant DA, executive ADA and deputy executive ADAs), according to staffing information provided by the DA’s Office. White men account for 11 of the bureau chiefs as well. There are also three white women, three African-American women and two Hispanic women serving as bureau chiefs, according to the DA’s Office.

Councilmember Rory Lancman also said he would hire a “largely new” executive leadership staff that reflects the demographic and geographic diversity of Queens and is made up of public defenders and other justice reform leaders.

“The new coach is bringing in a new team,” Lancman said, though he declined to name specific people he planned to hire.

A diverse staff can better understand and consider the experiences of defendants and victims of crimes, he said.

“What the criminal justice system lacks most is empathy and if you are a person with no familiarity or connection to the people who you’re prosecuting or the people who you are protecting then you’re approach is going to be very one-dimensional,” Lancman said. “You will have a very one-dimensional view of that community and all of the challenges and problems that community is facing.”

Jose Nieves, a former prosecutor in the office of the state attorney general, described the most specific changes, including proportional hiring goals and the creation of a senior executive position called the chief diversity officer (CDO).

“The CDO will be an integral part of my administration because they will be involved with the recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training and retention of all legal and professional staff to achieve real diversity,” Nieves said. “The CDO will also serve as a direct liaison between my administration and cultural or racially based bar associations to increase recruitment in underrepresented communities.”

The CDO would specifically focus on retaining ADAs of color — who frequently leave after just a few years of service — by tracking evaluation, development, promotion and career progression to ensure fairness and equality, he said. His office would also organize regular panels and workshops, he added.

“The first training initiative that the CDO will oversee is to arrange for implicit bias training for all legal and professional staff,” he said.

Last week, former Judge Gregory Lasak announced he, too, would create a new position: Lasak said he would hire “community DAs” from each of Queens’ 18 state assembly districts with insight from local leaders.

“We’ll hire a diverse team on every level,  striving for racial and gender equity. And we’ve already rolled out a proposal to hire 18 community DAs — one for each assembly district — to ensure that all neighborhoods have a seat at the table,” he told the Eagle.

A spokesperson for public defender Tiffany Cabán said she would actively recruit and hire ADAs from the specific communities most affected by the criminal justice system.

“We will also create a community steering committee that includes neighborhood-based supportive services,” the spokesperson said in an email. “It is clear that this will not be enough — we also have to change the metrics of success.”

The spokesperson said prosecutors would be promoted based on their ability to reduce recidivism, “decarcerate our communities” and “apply the law fairly across class and racial lines.”

Borough President Melinda Katz said she would conduct a staff review to “ensure that all ADAs are aligned with our mission for reform."

“It is imperative that every government office is representative of the community it serves,” Katz said in a statement. “I am committed to ensuring that all levels of my office as District Attorney reflect the diversity of our great borough.”

Attorney Betty Lugo, who co-founded the first Latina-owned law firm in New York City, has specifically called on the Queens DA’s office to learn more about the low-income communities of color where a disproportionate number of low-income defendants and crime victims live.

“Prosecutors can’t live in a vacuum,” she said. “If I live in Whitestone or College Point and I’m prosecuting someone from Far Rockaway or Jamaica, I should get to know the neighborhoods, why the crime was committed, what motivated the crime.”

Several of the candidates said they would engage local law schools to recruit more young attorneys of color and work closely with bar associations that represent specific racial and ethnic groups, like the Macon B. Allen Black Bar Association, the Asian Bar Association and the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County.

The Queens District Attorney’s Office pursues many of these outreach strategies already, a spokesperson for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown told the Eagle on Tuesday.

“Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown has always recognized the need to have a diverse office of prosecutors and support staff in order to successfully serve the many cultures and communities of Queens County,” the spokesperson said. “Every year we send an executive assistant to various minority job fairs in an effort to recruit more people of color to join the Queens District Attorney’s Office. We have maintained strong relationships with various professional organizations to attract lawyers of all races and backgrounds. Listed below are the job fairs and professional organizations the Office regularly and aggressively seeks new candidates for assistant district attorney positions.”

The job fairs and organizations include the Southeastern Minority Job Fair, National Black Prosecutors Association, Lavender Job Fair, Hispanic National Bar Association, Public Interest Legal Career Fair, National Latina/o Law Student Association, Asian American Bar Association of New York, National Black Law Students Association - Northeast Region and the Midwest-California-Georgia Consortium Program, the spokesperson said.

This article is Part Two in a series about demographics in the Queens District Attorney’s Office and the legal profession overall.