OPINION: Queens is ready to reform the criminal justice system

Councilmember Rory Lancman is running for the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney. Photo courtesy of Lancman’s Office.

Councilmember Rory Lancman is running for the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney. Photo courtesy of Lancman’s Office.

By Rory Lancman

Special to the Eagle

Around the country we are finally seeing a shift in legislation and policy to alleviate decades of damage done by mass incarceration and overpolicing. With Democratic reform candidates winning prosecutor elections in places like Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston, radical change in the justice system no longer seems like a pipe dream. But that doesn’t mean our work is done.

In New York City, we continue to progress on issues like bail reform. As chair of the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System, I have conducted hearings and passed legislation to expand pre-trial supervised release programs, launch a system to pay bail online, eliminate non-refundable fees levied against those paying bail by credit card, prevent predatory tactics by the for-profit bail bond industry, and ensure that courts have unbiased information on a defendant's ability to pay bail before it is set.

We are reducing the number of low-level drug possession charges clogging our courts, which wastes police and prosecutors’ resources, and subjects thousands of New Yorkers — overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color -- to the indignities of the criminal justice system and the potential for a criminal record. After I called for possession of THC oil to be treated like any other marijuana possession charge, the NYPD announced it was changing its policy and dropping its ridiculous double standard.

Rape and sexual assault reports are being taken more seriously by law enforcement. Victims of online harassment are safer now that the “revenge porn” law I authored is in effect, making it a crime to post online or distribute intimate images of someone without their consent. In just the first year, more than 140 individuals were charged under the new statute.

Despite the progress we’ve made for our city, we are still far from a reformed criminal justice system. This year Albany stopped short of completely ending cash bail, only prohibiting it for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies; people in Queens are still arrested and prosecuted for low-level offenses like possession of marijuana and jumping the turnstile; and the rate of reported rapes in Queens that the NYPD considered “unfounded” and therefore did not investigate was almost 15%, over twice as high as the other four boroughs. Our city continues to leave police violence against civilians unchecked, and Rikers Island remains open.

Who we elect as our next Queens District Attorney matters. It matters for victims of real crime like tenant harassment, wage theft, discrimination, hate crimes and other violence. It matters for working people, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants. This election raises important questions: Does Queens want a DA who will continue business as usual, or who will make real change? Do we want a DA who is complicit in continuing to punish people who can’t afford bail;  someone who will fall in line with the political establishment instead of taking a stand that is right but might not be popular? Do we want someone without a plan to shut down Rikers, or do we want to ensure that real reforms will be implemented in our borough by someone who has been doing the work for years?

I fought for criminal justice reform in the State Assembly, and as a City councilmember I have been at the forefront of efforts to close Rikers, end cash bail, hold police officers accountable for wrongdoing, and protect women from sexual assault and online harassment. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform the criminal justice system here in Queens, and as the next District Attorney, I will do just that.

Councilmember Rory Lancman is a Democratic candidate for Queens DA.