By David Brand
The Queens District Attorney’s Office has long been marked by consistency.
Late DA Richard Brown, who had planned to step aside on June 1 before he died last month, held the office for nearly 28 years. Before Brown began his tenure, John Santucci served as the county’s top prosecutor from 1977 to 1991.
A few other men held the office in the years before Santucci arrived, but they had a relatively smooth ascension to the office — none faced a primary opponent at election time. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1955 to find a contested primary Queens DA.
That year Frank D. O'Connor defeated incumbent T. Vincent Quinn.
But that all changes Tuesday.
Seven candidates of various ages, experiences and backgrounds are running for the Democratic nomination to become the next Queens County District Attorney.
Public defender Tiffany Cabán, Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilmember Rory Lancman, former Judge Gregory Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo, former Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik and former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves all appear on the ballot Tuesday.
Though they differ on the details, all seven position themselves as progressive criminal justice reforms who promise transformational change in the office.
To some extent, they each pledge to significantly curtail the use of bail and provide timelier discovery materials to defense counsel. They say they won’t prosecute myriad misdemeanors, and even some felonies. They advocate for the closure of Rikers Island jails and for the end of mass incarceration.
And everyday citizens, as well as corporate titans and well connected power brokers, have responded.
Millions of dollars have poured into the various campaigns, with small contributions coming from grassroots organizers and massive sums flowing from billionaires and high profile elected officials.
Several prominent leaders — including two presidential candidates — have weighed in on the race. As have countless store owners, attorneys, union bosses and social media users.
Now it’s up to you to determine who you will vote for when you head into the booth on June 25.
Still undecided? Here’s some more information about the seven Democratic candidates. (On the Republican side, attorney Daniel Kogan is running unopposed)
The candidates (listed alphabetically)
Experience: Cabán has worked as a public defender in New York City for eight years.
Where she stands on…
Cash bail: Cabán will not seek bail under any circumstances.
What she won’t prosecute: Various misdemeanors, non-violent felonies and some felonies.
She has also called for the decriminalization of all sex work-related offenses, including buying sex, that are not the result of sex trafficking.
“Tiffany will decline to prosecute crimes of poverty and instead go after wage theft and bad landlords,” her campaign website states.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: Like every candidate, Cabán supports the closure of Rikers Island jails. In contrast to every candidate, Cabán said the city should not build any new jails and invest in community development while diverting offenders into alternatives to incarceration programs.
“We need to close Rikers and we need to do it a lot faster than what the city is proposing,” Cabán said at a March candidates forum. “It is ridiculous that their plan is a 10-year plan.”
Experience: Katz is the current Queens Borough President. She is a former State Assemblymember and member of the City Council, where she chaired the Land Use Committee. She is an attorney who worked for real estate development firms before entering politics.
Where she stands on ...
Cash bail: Katz has long said she will not seek cash bail on any misdemeanor. She now says she will not request bail on any offense.
“If someone is a threat to our community’s safety, they shouldn’t be on the streets; if they’re not, they should not have to sit in jail awaiting trial regardless of their financial situation,” her website states.
What she won’t prosecute: Marijuana possession, individuals who sell sex. Various other low-level offenses.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: Katz supports closing Rikers Island and opposes the city’s jail plan. She wants the city to reconsider the size and scope of the project.
“I am for closing Rikers,” Katz said during her January State of the Borough Address. “I think we need to go to the community and figure out where the jail needs to be.”
Experience: Lancman represents District 24 in the City Council, where he is chair of the Committee on the Justice System.He is also a former Assemblymember, an officer He previously served as a member of the NYS Assembly and an infantry officer in New York's 42nd Infantry Division. He also worked as an attorney in private practice
Where he stands on ...
Cash bail: Lancman will not seek bail on any offense. “Let’s be real clear: I am never going to ask for cash bail in any circumstance whatsoever. Period. Full-stop,” he said at a forum in March
What he won’t prosecute: Lancman has the most comprehensive list of offenses he will not prosecute. From his website:
Smoking or possessing marijuana for recreational use; theft of services (turnstile jumping), which allows for the issuance of a civil summons; drug possession and sales resulting from predatory undercover buy and bust operations that prey on people’s addictions; driving on a suspended license due to failure to pay fines and fees to the DMV; trespass upon premises against the homeless seeking shelter, or against residents and legitimate visitors in NYCHA buildings” as well as various other offenses.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: Lancman supports the plan to close Rikers Island jails and open a new detention facility behind the Queens Criminal Courthouse.
Experience: Lasak is a former Queens Supreme Court, Criminal Term justice. He previously served as a Queens assistant district attorney, including time as chief of the Homicide Bureau
Where he stands on ...
Cash bail: Lasak will not ask for bail on misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and says he will consider offenses on a case-by-case basis.
Lasak says there should be no cash bail for “minor, nonviolent offenses” and has 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 at a candidates forum.
What he won’t prosecute: Individuals charged with prostitution, marijuana possession, various low level offenses. He has not issued blanket considerations or a will-not-prosecute list, instead opting to consider each offense on a case-by-case basis.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: Lasak supports closing the jails on Rikers Island and building new jails on Rikers Island.
Experience: Lugo co-founded Pacheco & Lugo, PLLC, the first Latina-owned law firm in New York City. She is a former prosecutor in the Nassau County DA's Office.
Where she stands on ...
Cash bail: Lugo says 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 added.
What she won’t prosecute: Various misdemeanors, including individuals arrested for selling sex.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: Lugo supports closing the jails on Rikers Island and building new jails on Rikers Island.
Experience: Malik is a former director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and most recently worked as a deputy attorney general office in the Washington D.C. Attorney General’s Office and lecturer at Harvard. She is a former prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn. She began her career working for a public defender agency as an investigator.
Where she stands on ...
Cash bail: She will not request bail under any circumstances. “We should not be putting people in jail simply because they are poor, ever,” Malik told the Eagle. “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
What she won’t prosecute: “Mina will decline to prosecute marijuana possession, and will help those with substance use disorder to enter drug treatment programs,” her website states.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: "Rikers Island is an abomination and it must be closed,” Malik told the Eagle. “Should the mayor's plan for closing Rikers go forward, we should use it as an opportunity not only to reduce how many people we detain, but also to change how we treat people in detention.”
Experience: Nieves is a former prosecutor in the state Attorney General’s Office and a former Brooklyn prosecutor. He also served as a captain the U.S. Army Reserves.
At the AG’s Office, Nieves was a deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit, which investigates and prosecutes members of law enforcement who cause the death of unarmed civilians. He conducted the unit’s first homicide trial.
Where he stands on ...
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 during a candidates forum.
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.
What he won’t prosecute: Nieves provides a comprehensive list of offenses he will not prosecute. From his website:
“As a general rule, I will direct the prosecutors at the Queens District Attorney’s office to decline to prosecute the following charges, unless they involve a hate crime or domestic violence: fare beats, trespass, unlicensed operation of a vehicle, shoplifting for amounts under $250, criminal possession of marijuana, misdemeanor level driving with a suspended license” as well as various other offenses.
Rikers Island and the city’s borough-based jails plan: “I support the closure of Rikers Island and I think Rikers Island needs to be closed, but I do not support the creation of super community-based facilities,” Nieves said at a candidates forum. “What we need to do is use existing facilities and we need to decarcerate Rikers Island,” Nieves continued. “The answer to closing Rikers is not building more facilities to hold people. It’s actually holding less people, de-incarcerating the population.”