The Queens D.A. Race Shakes Up New York's Legal System: "This is Just the Beginning"
Our roundtable probes the stakes of the Queens DA election for criminal justice reform: “If there is room for reform anywhere in the boroughs of New York City, it is in Queens.”
Daniel Nichanian Jun 20, 2019
Our roundtable probes the stakes of the Queens election for district attorney for criminal justice reform: “If there is room for reform anywhere in the boroughs of New York City, it’s in Queens.”
Queens hosts the year’s marquee election for district attorney on June 25. For activists looking to harness local officials’ power to overhaul the criminal legal system, this race is the latest chapter in efforts that saw new victories in Northern Virginia last week. It will shape the prospects of reform and decarceration in a county of nearly 2.4 million people.
On Monday, I sat down to talk about this election and its stakes with three New York journalists who have covered it all year: David Brand from the Queens Daily Eagle, Christine Chung from The City, and Aaron Morrison from The Appeal.
We discussed why this election has captured people’s attention, how the language of reform is ubiquitous and how that creates new challenges, and how the result will impact issues including wrongful convictions, sex work, and jail space in New York City. You can listen to the conversation, or read the transcript below.
“If there is room for reform anywhere in the boroughs of New York City, it’s in Queens more than anywhere else,” Morrison said. Prosecutorial practices are harsher here than elsewhere in the city. Richard Brown, the district attorney since 1991, announced this year that he would not seek re-election. He died in May. John Ryan, his chief assistant, is now occupying the position but is not running in this election. The seven Democrats in the race are public defender Tiffany Cabán, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilmember Rory Lancman, former Queens prosecutor and state Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak, attorney Betty Lugo, former Queens prosecutor Mina Malik, and Jose Nieves, a former prosecutor for the state attorney general. The sole GOP candidate is attorney Daniel Kogan; Queens is a strongly Democratic county, so Tuesday’s primary is paramount.
The campaign has reinforced a growing idea that prosecutorial reform hinges on declination policies, namely commitments to not charge certain categories of cases. “They’ve been talking a lot about what specific charges they wouldn’t prosecute,” Chung said. Our panelists explain that the candidates differ on their commitment to this strategy, however. The candidates also vary on decriminalizing sex work, and on the proper attitude toward the prosecutors’ statewide association, a group that has resisted reform. The local press has also chronicled their differing degrees of ambition on other issues.
Katz is the candidate most connected to the Democratic establishment, with endorsements from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the local party. Cabán, the only public defender running, has drawn support from people who champion bolder changes, including the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner. The Appeal also profiled Lancman, who has said he would emulate Krasner, last year.
Listen to our roundtable conversation above. You can also access it on Soundcloud.
Below is a transcript that has been lightly edited for clarity.
Daniel Nichanian: Local DA elections are often very quiet affairs. Richard Brown was unopposed six times while running for re-election. But this year’s election has really exploded in terms of local visibility and organizing, and in terms of the buzz it has received. What do you think has made this race break through and capture people’s imagination and demands for change to this extent?
David Brand: I think it shows the power of the movement to shine a light on the power of prosecutors across the country, that has been informed by races in, recently Philadelphia with Larry Krasner and Boston with Rachael Rollins. Because Queens is massive, basically the size of Philadelphia and Boston combined, this is a real opportunity for a massive county to affect some real criminal justice reform in the prosecutor’s office. There’s also a lot of media who live in the area, and because it’s the only really big ticket election in New York City right now, I think so many of us have begun or continue paying attention to this. The timing really helps. And there’s so much movement on the ground here in Queens, I’m sure Christine or Aaron can talk about.
Christine Chung: Yeah. What your question mentioned, the fact that DA Brown, who was the DA for 28 years or so—he died a few months ago—the fact that it’s an opportunity for a serious change in Queens is another reason why a lot of eyes are on this race. It’s been a long time since there’s been an election for DA, so naturally people are curious about it. The field is also really crowded, seven people. When it’s an exciting race and has a lot of promising candidates, people are going to watch.
Aaron Morrison: And I’ll just add, I kind of like how symbolic this race can be. Queens is home to roughly 2.4 million people. There are roughly 2.4 million people incarcerated in this entire country. The symbolism of a place like Queens having a real opportunity to reform its criminal legal system, I think is really what’s drawing a lot of attention.
Brand: I think that’s so true. I noticed that the other day looking at a statistic that the population of Queens is also the population of people incarcerated in the country, I thought that was really powerful, it’s cool that you noticed that. I think Queens has become like the spiritual heart of the progressive movement and the movement of the Democratic Socialists of America. That’s drawing a lot of attention to the race, especially in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez winning her congressional primary and then going into D.C. But I think it’s also about more than just Ocasio-Cortez, I think it’s about the movement of people on the ground who delivered the victory for her. There’s such a powerful grassroots movement of organizations that have been advocating for justice reform and amplifying the voices of people who are incarcerated, or people, communities of color who are experiencing overpolicing. That has been so strong and so vocal, and I think really heartening to see the power that these grassroots movements have been able to wield.
Chung: On the political side, I think eyes are on the race to see if the AOC effect is real and can sustain another election cycle. Like David was saying, this grassroots push—DSA, Real Justice PAC, groups like these—leading to her upset over a really longtime incumbent, which was a huge, huge defeat for the Queens Democratic Party. People are waiting to see if this is more than just a one-off and if it’s going to happen again with Tiffany Cabán.
Nichanian: David, you mentioned Krasner in Philly and Rollins in Boston as the flag bearers of the movement around changing the way DAs work and operate. They both have actually just endorsed one of the candidates in this race, Tiffany Cabán. How much is the existence of that movement around the country resonating in this campaign, and are the alignments around the race corresponding to what we have seen elsewhere?
Brand: I think the existence of a nationwide movement is really powerful in this campaign. You see that in the contributions to Cabán’s campaign, especially in the most recent 11-day pre-primary important. She’s gotten more than 4000 contributions from all across the country, I think really aided by an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but more importantly Ocasio-Cortez sending an email soliciting contributions to her massive email list. What I think is kind of funny about Rollins and Krasner endorsing Cabán is, first, Councilmember Rory Lancman who was the first to announce candidacy and was the most progressive, was building himself for many months, almost a year, maybe more, as the Larry Krasner of Queens in terms of being a reformer. The other thing is Rachel Rollins, who did her endorsement of Cabán today: Back in February when Mina Malik was still rumored to be announcing, she was about to announce, her people first reached out to my former colleagues, Christina Carrega, and told her that Malik was thinking of announcing and we were reporting some stories about it for the Queens Eagle. Rachel Rollins responded to one of my stories that Mina Malik had retweeted, saying whatever you need I got you, and now a few days before the primary election, she endorses Cabán. I think that Cabán has become a symbol, political symbol, for many people wanting to attach themselves to as well.
Chung: One thing that I would add is, I think we’re seeing a lot of language from the progressive prosecutor movement, language that’s been used by Rollins and Krasner, being repurposed in this race by candidates other than just Tiffany Cabán. I’ve heard Melinda Katz talk about restorative justice quite a few times as well. She drops the Cure Violence model a lot. Tiffany Cabán talks a lot about how she’s a decarceral prosecutor, not just a progressive prosecutor. Then we’re also seeing, I think this is in the wake of Rollins outlining a decline to prosecute list, a lot of the candidates in this race have done similar things as well. They’ve been talking a lot about what specific charges they wouldn’t prosecute, as opposed to the discussion centering what they would prosecute, what constitutes a crime. That’s a very important shift that we’ve seen resonate in this race as well.
Morrison: I actually I just spoke to Tiffany Cabán this morning, and it’s safe to say she told me that she certainly hopes that this movement of progressive prosecutors, she certainly hopes that plays in her favor. She mentioned the recent Virginia victories, who beat out the more conservative establishment there. She certainly is well aware, and I would say banking on the idea that this carries over into next week’s primary.
Chung: The question, though, is do the people in Queens care? Are people paying attention in Southeast Queens and in other parts of Queens other than just AOC bastion, Astoria, Long Island City area, do people actually care about these endorsements, Rollins and Krasner? We don’t really know.
Brand: I think that’s key. Southeast Queens, as usual one of the most powerful voting blocs in the entire country, has been kind of ignored when it comes to reporting, and I think ignored by some of the candidates. I question how much Cabán has spent time there. I think more recently, a lot of people have been canvassing the area from the Cabán campaign. But I think for many months they never went there. I think a lot of the campaigning and canvassing and grassroots stuff there has been a little more under the radar. I really think who wins that area is going to win the election.
Morrison: I know at least Melinda Katz and Mina Malik have opened offices in Southeast Queens.
Brand: I think Melinda Katz has two, right?
Chung: Yes she has two, I’ve heard that as well. And she has the endorsement of Congressman Meeks, who leads the Queens Democrats.
Brand: She has almost all the leaders there, except maybe James Sanders, a state senator there who backed Lancman. Malik’s been doing a lot there, and she’s known in the community, I think.
Morrison: It’s interesting that Meeks has endorsed Katz because Meeks used to work in the Queens DA’s office with Greg Lasak.
Nichanian: I want to take a step back before we go into the candidates and the contrasts between them to look at the current DA’s office in Queens. This race is said to be an especially big opportunity to overhaul the legal system because of how unreformed, so to speak, the Queens DA’s office is compared to its counterparts in NYC. Do you share that characterization? What makes this DA office more of a bastion of older-school ‘tough-on-crime’ policies than other areas of New York City?
Morrison: Well, if you listen to me speak to the folks in the Queens DA’s office, they are not anti-reform at all. A couple months ago, they started putting out these weekly papers to the public.
Chung: John Ryan, right? Letters to the People of Queens, or something like that.
Brand: Getting ready for a career as a pundit if it doesn’t work out for him.
Morrison: Right, right. They’ve been talking about alternative sentencing, domestic violence, and some of the issues that the candidates have been focusing on while they’ve been out campaigning.
But I think all of us can agree that yes, if there is room for reform anywhere in the boroughs of New York City, it’s in Queens more than anywhere else.
Chung: It’s the only borough without a conviction integrity unit. I think David also did a story about the marijuana prosecutions in Queens, right?
Brand: Yeah, it’s leading the city, and the racial disparities have actually gotten worse even as marijuana prosecutions have significantly decreased. I think what Aaron said though about if you talk to people in the office, especially the top officials: They do see themselves as reformers to an extent. That’s why I think John Ryan has really bristled at the campaign being a referendum on 28 years of Richard Brown’s tenure. For them, for people like John Ryan, or other top officials like James Quinn, Bob Masters who has been in the office for 40 years. I think, if this were 10 or 15 years ago, that some of the things they’ve implemented at the time were progressive. It’s just that the thinking has changed around some of those reforms, and there’s been inertia. I think that it’s hard to effect real change when people have been in the same position for many years. I see that on a lot of the reforms that they made, when it comes to sex trafficking court, substance abuse intervention court, drug intervention court, people still have to plead guilty to an offense. That still becomes a mark on their record, something hanging over them, even if they can get that conviction waived by completing a program or something like that. It’s still something that hangs over them.
James Quinn, who is one of the top officials, went to a Close Rikers meeting and talked about how a lot of the rhetoric around mass incarceration is wrong, that in fact there’s only 11 people from Queens currently in Rikers who their only offense was a misdemeanor. Maybe that’s technically true, that their offense was one misdemeanor, but it kind of ignores people whose larger criminal record is basically based on low level offenses that many of the current DA candidates say they won’t even prosecute. I think there’s just a resistance to taking that next step into considering, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t be considering those things at all.” Maybe if someone has six or seven offenses and they’re for marijuana possession or turnstile jumping, you can re-examine all of those offenses and not just say, well, this is just the latest in a long line of a criminal record.
Chung: I think some of the Queens top executive assistant district attorneys would even go so far as to say that people incarcerated in Rikers right now don’t include people who are there for low level offenses, like sex work. That’s some of the language I’ve heard out of that office. They don’t even think that it’s really the problem that candidates have made it out to be.
Brand: I think you’re right.
Nichanian: This is great, because when you read about this race, the word reform is ubiquitous—not just in what the incumbent office is saying, but also in how all the candidates are positioning themselves as champions of reform in some way. As criminal justice reform has progressed in local elections in the past few years, that’s something we’ve seen across the board, in more progressive counties especially, where incumbents or challengers whatever their politics are using the same language. That’s the success of the movement but also makes it harder to figure out who stands for what. In your work on Queens, how do you unpack what “reform” means, and how do you cover so many candidates’ approaches to criminal justice reform in a way that adds clarity to the fault lines?
Morrison: For one, I think it’s just important, even as they’ve taken on the rhetoric of reform, and, almost—I don’t want to say radical positions because I don’t think you can be radical and be a prosecutor, personally, but I think some of what they have been saying, sounds great. But the bottom line is, you still have to lock people up. There are voters out there who want to know, who are you actually going to go after? Who are you prosecuting, if you’re not prosecuting the sort of low-level offenses and some of the public nuisance things that have created a climate and culture of overpolicing poor and people of color, communities. I think that’s where you kind of get the clarity: Alright, it’s fine for you say to say you’re not going to prosecute, but you’re still a prosecutor, the job is to combat crime and to punish crime in a community, so what are you actually going to do? Who are you going to go after? I think some of the candidates have actually answered that question in some ways. But one thing I noticed at candidate forums is that when Lasak says something about dialing back some of the very far to the left rhetoric, he gets applause from the audience, because there are people out there that still want to know that you’re going to keep them safe.
Chung: I think that we see this conflict a lot with Tiffany Cabán as well. The balance between reform and putting people in jail, or keeping Queens safe, the language some people might use. I’m not very clear on what her stance is for the borough-based jails. I know that she wants to close Rikers but that she doesn’t want new jails and so she would invest in transitional housing. But realistically, where would the people go whose offenses rise to the level of incarceration? I don’t think she’s really answered that question clearly, publicly.
Brand: I agree. And kind of what both of you guys said: Queens is so huge. Though there are relatively few crimes compared to past years, and decline to prosecute a lot of offenses would lead to even fewer people who are going to jails or being sentenced to prison, it’s still a pretty high volume of offenses being committed. And so it’s unclear where would those people go, if there wasn’t a jail. But then I would love to hear more about sentencing policy. Something I think Larry Krasner made very clear when he did become prosecutor, that his assistant district attorneys were going to seek the low end of sentencing guidelines at pretty much all circumstances. That’s something I’d like to hear candidates talk more about, because if someone is charged and convicted of a violent crime, what is the sentencing going to be, what is it going to happen? Would they pursue felony murder as a charge? There’s a pretty high profile case right now that one of them is going to inherit, probably. Two men allegedly robbed a cell phone store, one was in the store, one was allegedly acting as the lookout. Police responded to that scene. One of the officers was shot and killed by friendly fire by another officer, and both of those suspects, both of those defendants are now charged with felony murder. That’s a controversial charge. I tried talking with some of the candidates about it, and just giving some very vague answers to that. So I want to know what are some of these controversial things that they are going to actually pursue when it comes to people who are charged and convicted of violent crimes.
Nichanian: Is it fair to say that the campaign has focused more on, there’s this nonviolent/violent binary in how people discuss reform. Has that played out on how people have focused on the language of reform in this election? That’s kind of what I hear you saying, David?
Brand: I think maybe this deserves some more reporting. I think it’s become more about what wouldn’t people prosecute, less about what would they prosecute? Or how would they go about that? I think that we could probably do a better job of asking those questions. I think that nonviolent versus violent offenses is some of the binary, I guess. But I think some of the conversation is also about what is considered a violent felony that is not exactly violent. Cabán, for example, has brought up, you can get charged with second degree grand larceny, which is considered a violent felony, for stealing Amazon packages, and should that person be sentenced to a long prison term because of that. I guess a question that I would have is how would they prosecute some of the more violent, maybe horrific, disturbing crimes.
Morrison: I would ask, just to add to that, I would ask the candidates what other states, maybe, or other jurisdictions they might look to, if they think it’s being done properly elsewhere. I know California has reformed the way it treats—in some respects, not all the way—felony murder, in the same way that you mentioned, David, where if someone’s the lookout but in the course of the crime someone dies, someone is killed, both people or all people involved are charged in some way in connection to the murder or manslaughter. California has actually passed reforms that says that they’re not going to hold folks life without parole in some very serious or violent crimes, especially when mitigating factors show that this person, person B, had less to do with the actual violent offense than person A.
Chung: With regards to some of the actions going on in other states when it comes to reform, I know that DA Krasner has a sentencing review unit, obviously there’s a conviction review unit already, where he’s reviewing past sentences to see if they were too severe or too intense. I’d be curious if this is something that other DA candidates in this race would be interested in adopting or implementing as well.
Nichanian: On the conviction integrity unit point: Christine, you brought that up earlier as something that Queens doesn’t have. And that’s an issue that has come up in the past two weeks because of Ava DuVernay’s new film “When They See Us,” on the Central Park Five case, which has amplified the conversation around wrongful convictions and the role of DAs in that. How has that issue played out in this election? And what are the odds of real reform on the issue of conviction integrity unit and conviction reviews in the aftermath of this primary?
Morrison; For The Appeal, I did a story about the lack of conviction integrity unit in Queens. Queens is the only borough in New York City without a conviction review or conviction integrity unit. Let me just say that I did talk to the Queen’s DA office, and they say they’ve had a policy where, when people come forward with allegations of wrongful convictions, DA Richard Brown would assign those cases or those allegations for review to his executive staff. Then they would build a team and report back to Richard Brown, and then they would go forward from there. But there’s not an official integrity unit, and most experts say that any good integrity unit is going to be independent of the rest of the office. So if DA Brown had his top brass reviewing these cases, cases of their colleagues, or in certain cases, cases that they themselves prosecuted, that is not really what, at least in the eyes of academics and folks who are teaching criminal justice around the nation, that’s not what you want in a conviction integrity unit.
That said, I asked all of the candidates, what do you want to know in regards to conviction integrity unit, and all of them said they support it. Some had more detailed responses on that than others. For instance, Rory Lancman has had a conviction integrity unit policy established for much longer than any other candidates. Mina Malik released hers recently, I think it was this month. The thing that struck me was that all of the candidates, except for Mina Malik, could not name one case that they would currently review. In recent debates and forums, they’ve talked about the Chanel Lewis case. But there are many older cases that could be good for review in a new revamped DA’s office or under a newly-created conviction integrity unit in Queens.
Brand : It just really surprises me that they wouldn’t, even just to score PR points, start the conviction review unit that’s been relatively successful in Brooklyn, that the DA’s office in Staten Island is starting and received funding from the City Council. I think the next candidate will do that. Greg Lasak has made it basically a key tenet of his entire campaign from the very beginning. His first campaign video in October last year featured people who he helped reverse convictions for during his time as a top official in the DA’s office. Malik really promotes her role in the Brooklyn DA’s office in helping to start the conviction review unit there. Lancman, of course, as a city councilmember, helped allocate funding, including to Staten Island to start the conviction review unit. So I think the next DA will definitely put that into place. But that’s a really interesting point, Aaron, that none of the candidates could bring up a case that they would want to review.
Morrison: Except for Mina Malik. Mina Malik did bring up the case of Carlton Roman.
Chung: As a specific example she gave?
Morrison: Yes, specific. So, you’re saying you would do this, but you’ve got to have a couple of cases in mind already. Or hasn’t someone approached your campaign asking for some help in this regard? Mina Malik was the only one to offer one example. I don’t want to give her more credit than is due because it was just one example.
Nichanian: Another issue I want to jump on is the debate around Rikers Island. The debate around how, when to close it, whether to close it even, and what to replace it with rages on, and that has echoed in the election. In what way will the identity of the next DA impact that conversation and impact what happens to jail space in the city?
Chung: To my knowledge DAs don’t actually have any kind of official input on what happens with the closure with Rikers and the plan with the borough-based jails. Am I right in that?
Brand: Yeah, I think you’re right.
Chung: They’ve all weighed in. They all have opinions about it. Most of the candidates support closing Rikers. But most don’t think that the Mayor’s borough-based jail plan is a good idea for Queens. I think the only one fully across the board is Rory Lancman. It’s obviously a key issue in the DA race, but as for their actual power in what happens next for the city, I think it’s pretty nonexistent.
Brand: I think the plan is going to continue and you’ll see the next mayor support it and the next councilmembers continue to support it without getting cold feet. But I think the next DA, the role that they will have could impact the actual final plan because if they are able to reduce the jail population significantly, that could have an impact on just how large the facilities are. The Mayor’s office has already signaled that they estimate the jail population will decrease from initial estimates of 5,000 by 2026 to 4,000. The next district attorney will have a huge role to play in ensuring that that estimate is accurate, and that maybe could even get the jail population lower than that. That, again, could affect the final design, because if you have a place designed right now for 5,700 detainees, for an estimated 5,000 detainee population. They’ve said that they would consider making it smaller to accommodate a 4,000 detainee population. If they’re willing to that maybe they’d be willing to go even smaller, I don’t know.
Chung: That’s a good point. I should mention that Melinda Katz, the Queens Borough President, does have some input into the general city planning process. She had a land use hearing last Thursday to talk about the borough-based jail plan. So she does have some sort of input into the process.
Morrison: One other way, and I think this is echoing what David said, that the DA’s office is going to have impact on how big or small the new jail is, is with the revamping of diversion programs in the Queens DA’s office. I know many candidates are saying they want to set up diversion programs where it’s almost like the person doesn’t even touch the criminal legal system, which means they’re not being detained at all and are just being steered towards community-based programs, community-oriented groups who already know that person’s family, or know that person personally and can intervene before it becomes a matter of charging and putting someone into the system. So I think diversion programs will also play a role in what happens with Rikers Island and the new jails.
Nichanian: There’s been a major spectrum, on this point about diversion, in DA elections around the country. There’s been a conversation around whether to just drop charges entirely and not touch certain categories of cases, versus how to expand diversion programs and alternative ways of approaching charges. This has played out in this campaign, with the conversation around whether to just not prosecute some cases at all. We were talking about that earlier. How has this election advanced that conversation? How have the contrast played out between whether to just not prosecute at all, whether to prosecute in the new manner, whether it’s just a matter of not incarcerating? What are the contrasts on this issue?
Brand: All the candidates pretty early on were down with, basically, prosecutorial reform 101, which is not prosecuting certain low level offenses, marijuana possession, turnstile jumping. I think, gradually, more and more have been expanding that list. I think Lancman was pretty early on with an extensive list of offenses he wouldn’t prosecute. Cabán, also. I think you see more Melinda Katz starting to borrow some of that rhetoric, talking about what she wouldn’t prosecute and also how she wouldn’t request bail under almost all circumstances, and that has evolved from an earlier position of not requesting bail on misdemeanors.
Chung: One of the main issues that they’ve really diverged on is sex work. That’s been something that people have changed their positions on a little bit too. Right now I think at this point all the canddiates are declining to prosecute sex workers, and they disagree on the rest of the constellation of sex work related charges, like loitering, patronizing, promotion. But in the beginning, from the first debate, I think held by VOCAL-New York, till now, their positions have changed. Even at at an early forum, Greg Lasak said sex work was bad for the community and it was really detrimental to quality of life, and now you see him saying that he would decline to prosecute sex workers. So I think that’s a really interesting shift.
Morrison: But also, my experiences of it has been difficult to follow the candidates on their positions, I think you’re right, Christine, that most of them have moved to the left on the list. But just recently, Lasak went back to saying that all of these things can be case-by-case basis.
Chung: Yeah, he said that to me too.
Morrison: He’s willing to say he doesn’r want to be a mass incarcerator, but he’s not going to commit to having any sort of blanket policy for some of these issues, including turnstile jumpers, and sex workers. So, in my experience it’s been difficult to pin them down on those issues because they seem to be trying to out-woke each other.
Chung: I totally agree. I think that their positions have changed from forum to forum. Even when you ask them for their decline-to-prosecute list, that might differ from what they actually say at a forum the next day.
Brand: That’s a good point. It’s hard, because there’s so many forums in so many different places, and so many different audiences. And the messaging can change. There could be five forums in one week, and you can go a week without going to one of them, and then things have changed a bit. And it can be hard to keep track of. I think it would be really great to try to get those would-not-prosecute lists, the same things that Rachael Rollins got a lot of acclaim for publishing and that Larry Krasner did as well. I think certain candidates have those, and have those explicitly, I think Lancman does. But I think other candidates, like you said, talk about it case by case basis and don’t want to really commit to anything, and especially maybe hedging their bets if they do get into office and that’s one campaign promise that they don’t have to hold or break.
Nichanian: A last question before I let you all go: The DA Association of New York [DAASNY], which is the statewide association that lobbies on behalf of the state’s DAs, has been in the news a lot in the past year as warning against or opposing some of the reforms that have been discussed. Some of the candidates in this race—David, you wrote about this a few months ago—have said that they wish to withdraw from that statewide DA association. What are the stakes of that conversation around statewide reform, and around this question of whether these candidates would remain in the association?
Brand: You hear from certain candidates who say that you need to be in the system to change it. And so certain candidates say they would stay in, so that they can try to effect change from the inside. Other candidates say there’s no point in being in, especially when they seem to advocate for the status quo. And then hardcore reformers say that by some of the prosecutors from bigger counties like Queens remaining in DAASNY, it lends credibility to some of the more status quo or regressive prosecutors in smaller counties, especially rural counties, throughout the state. I don’t know, I guess it’s hard for me to have an opinion on that. I can see those different perspectives. I think that, ultimately, it just matters, if you’re going to stay in it, that you’re willing to criticize things that you don’t agree with. If you say you’re reform, you say you disagree, you want to stay in DAASNY, then continue criticizing from the inside. But I guess, ultimately, I don’t see what the point is, if you are going to criticize all of what they’re doing and say you’re a reformer and that they don’t uphold your reform perspective. I guess I kind of talked myself through my opinion there. I think that if you’re going to criticize them, then why even be in it?
Chung: And there are Lancman, right, and Cabán, who wouldn’t?
Brand: I think Lancman wouldn’t join, Cabán wouldn’t join.
Morrison: Especially the more progressive or the furthest to the left of the field, it’s hard to say you’re going to bring transformational change to that office and remain part of a group that has opposed pretty much all of the reforms that you are promising to bring to the county. It just seems like the only way you can have credibility with constituents is to not join DAASNY. We’re talking about, just for example, discovery reform. Even back when Cuomo signed the executive order saying that the attorney general’s office would investigate officer-involved shootings, DAASNY opposed that, bringing in a special prosecutor or taking it outside of the office so that police aren’t policing the police, or that the close relationship between DAs and police officers doesn’t continue to be a problem when it comes to public confidence in investigations of officer-involved force.
Chung: I think it’s notable to point out too that whoever becomes the next Queens DA, if they were to opt out of DAASNY, would be an anomaly for the rest of the city, because Brooklyn’s Eric Gonzales, Manhattan’s Cy Vance are definitely in it. I think Vance was a past president. I’m not sure about Staten Island. But it would be breaking with precedent.
Brand: I wonder if it would also be a model for the other DAs to follow. Because they would face pressure saying, the Queens DA opted out of joining this organization, are you going to do that? And that would become an issue in upcoming elections, like the Manhattan DA election, where Dan Quart is positioning himself as the progressive alternative to Vance.
Chung: Yea, I guess we’ll see.
Brand: I think that this has been an amazing race and it’s been an amazing way to raise awareness about the incredible power that a prosecutor has, and that this is just the beginning. This is happening in Queens right now. There’’s going to be more DA elections. Is someone going to push Eric Gonzales in Brooklyn to embrace even more progressive reforms? How are people going to challenge Cy Vance in Manhattan? This is really just the beginning here in New York, or maybe not the beginning, but I think a continuation of some of the changes that began in Brooklyn are now becoming more intense here in Queens, and are going to continue to expand throughout the city.
Nichanian: On that exciting note, I want to thank all of you for joining this conversation. It’s been very interesting and I hope others find it interesting as well. Thank you!
Chung: Thank you.
Brand: Awesome to be here, awesome to talk to you guys. Thank you.
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