Where the Queens DA candidates stand on the issues

Greg Lasak, Melinda Katz and Rory Lancman.
Greg Lasak, Melinda Katz and Rory Lancman.
Photo illustration by Alex Law
Greg Lasak, Melinda Katz and Rory Lancman.

Where the Queens DA candidates stand on the issues

‘The difference is in the details’ among the seven rivals’ policy platforms.
May 6, 2019

The seven Democratic candidates for Queens district attorney reflect the diversity that has shaped the borough. Four of the candidates are people of color. Three are women. They vary in age, political connections and courtroom experience.

But the candidates themselves have noticed that when they speak, they often agree – and they’re all proposing the same overall shift away from the legacy of the just-deceased Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who was a relic of the tough-on-crime era.

“Tonight you’re going to hear a lot of really similar sounding ideas,” candidate Tiffany Cabán told the crowd at a forum hosted by the New Visions Democratic Club in Jackson Heights last month. “Conviction integrity units. Decriminalize poverty. End cash bail.”

And there’s more that could be added to the list. All the candidates agreed not to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, since the agency often monitors court calendars to detain immigrants attending court hearings. They all agreed they wouldn’t prosecute people arrested for riding illegal e-bikes – often low-income, immigrant delivery workers. The same goes for personal use of marijuana. And all have committed to hosting quarterly town halls with translation services as district attorney.

“But,” as Cabán continued telling the crowd, “the difference is in the details.”

Ahead of the June 25 Democratic primary, City & State is trying to nail down some of those details – consulting many sources, including the reporting of Christine Chung of The City and Emma Whitford and David Brand in the QueensEagle; scouring candidates’ websites, attending a public forum and reading about many others; and relying heavily on an election guide – replete with extensive questionnaires filled out by the candidates – compiled by the progressive public defender group 5 Boro Defenders. 

The candidate that voters choose in the primary is expected to go on to win in November, and could set prosecution policy for decades to come. Queens hasn’t had a competitive election for its top prosecutor since Brown, who died on May 3, was elected in 1991. And district attorneys across the state routinely hold the position for years, or even decades. “The next district attorney could be here for the next 25, 28 years,” candidate and New York City Councilman Rory Lancman told the crowd at the April forum.

The race is also notable in its reflection of Queens’ shifting politics. Thanks to the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and progressive activists’ successful push to keep Amazon from building a second headquarters in the borough, Queens is increasingly a center of left-wing political energy.

Under Brown, the office was had been seen as the most punitive in the five boroughs. Queens sent more offenders to jail on misdemeanor charges than any other borough last year. It’s the only office in the city without a dedicated conviction review unit. And while Manhattan and Brooklyn’s top prosecutors have been battling over who can undo legacies of aggressive drug arrests the fastest, Brown didn’t take join the movement.

All seven candidates who want to replace Brown say they’ll change how the office runs. But that change would look slightly different under each of them. Here’s a guide to each candidate’s stances on the hot-button issues in the race:

Tiffany Cabán

Cabán is a public defender with New York County Defender Services since 2015. Previously, she was a public defender with the Legal Aid Society.

More information: campaign website and Queens for DA Accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Cabán would decline to prosecute marijuana-related offenses, and all drug possession cases.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: Cabán would decline to prosecute all such offenses.

On jails: Cabán says she supports closing Rikers Island and instead incarcerating people in other existing jails, treated as “transitional housing” with supportive services that prepare detainees for reentry.

On prostitution: She supports the full decriminalization of sex work and would decline to prosecute all related offenses, including those against customers (“johns”) and landlords owning buildings where sex work is done.

On tenant harassment: Cabán would start investigations based on the New York City public advocate’s Landlord Watchlist. She says she would work on repairing trust with tenants so they cooperate with prosecution.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Cabán said she does not, and that accepting such donations “should be a disqualifying factor for your consideration in this race.”

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: She says there’s no correlation between length of sentences and recidivism rates, so she wants to bring prisoners back to their communities as long as they don’t pose a threat.

On creating a conviction review unit: Cabán would create such a unit to review potential cases of innocence, as well as cases with potential due process violations or excessive sentencing.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: Cabán says she would leave the group immediately, because “these associations tend to have regressive, racist, and classist ‘tough on crime’ mentalities.”

Melinda Katz

Katz has served as Queens borough president since 2014. She was previously an attorney at Greenberg Traurig, an assemblywoman and a New York City councilwoman.

More information: campaign website and Queens for DA accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Katz would decline to prosecute marijuana-related offenses, but considers drugged driving to be a serious offense.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: Katz says she would “look to significantly reduce prosecution of these types of offenses,” but would “consider each arrest on its merits” and would look to alternatives to fines or incarceration as a means of resolution.

On jails: She supports closing Rikers Island and calls the building of new jails in each borough “a better model for ensuring cases are heard in a timely manner,” while criticizing the specific proposal for the Queens jail.

On prostitution: Katz would aim to avoid charging sex workers, instead focusing on pimps, traffickers and other enablers of abuse.  She has voiced support for the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where defendants are treated as victims, and cases are often dismissed after sex workers attend counseling sessions.

On tenant harassment: She would create a bureau of housing fraud to go after predatory lenders and bad landlords.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Katz said she does, and that “any district attorney should be able to show that they are independent no matter where they get their money from.”

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: She has not yet responded to a request for comment.

On creating a conviction review unit: Katz would create an independent unit to review past convictions.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: Katz would remain in the DAASNY but would enact policy “based 100% on what I believe works best for the people of Queens.”

Rory Lancman

The New York City councilman has chaired the body’s criminal justice committee since 2014. Previously he was an assemblyman, an attorney in private practice and a New York Army National Guard infantry officer.

More information: candidate website and Queens for DA accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Lancman would decline to prosecute marijuana-related violations and misdemeanors and marijuana sales less than 25 grams.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: He would decline to prosecute most instances of such offenses while considering defendants’ circumstances and the application of the law on others.

On jails: Lancman backs the city’s plan to close Rikers and open borough jails. He supports the proposed design for the Kew Gardens jail and says attacks on that plan “are undermining the entire Close Rikers movement.”

On prostitution: Lancman supports prosecuting sex workers through the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where defendants are treated as victims, and cases are often dismissed after sex workers attend counseling sessions.

On tenant harassment: He would create a tenant and homeowner protection unit within the economic crimes bureau to pursue tenant harassment and crack down on illegal “Airbnb-type” short-term rentals.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Lancman says he accepts funding from all those who are legally allowed to contribute because “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight.”

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: He says there are prisoners who are no longer any danger to society and it’s fair to ask if they still deserve to be incarcerated – and that he would never seek sentences of life without parole.

On creating a conviction review unit: Lancman would create an independent unit to review past convictions, overseen by an independent advisory board.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: He would leave the DAASNY, calling the group “a consistent opponent of meaningful criminal justice reform.”

Greg Lasak

He served as a Queens Supreme Court judge from 2004 to 2018. Previously he was an assistant district attorney in Queens.

More information: candidate website and Queens for DA accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Lasak would decline to prosecute marijuana-related offenses.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: He would decline to prosecute most examples of such offenses, and would proceed in all cases “knowing the repercussions of a criminal conviction.”

On jails: Lasak would build or refurbish existing jails on Rikers Island, rather than build new ones elsewhere.

On prostitution: Lasak says he has “no problem decriminalizing” sex work, but is concerned about quality of life complaints regarding street prostitution.

On tenant harassment: His office’s economic crimes bureau would handle cases. Representatives would go to tenant organizations and listen to their problems, then prosecute if their were crimes committed.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Lasak said he has not accepted such contributions, but did not comment on whether he would if offered.

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: He says he would review cases if asked by a defendant.

On creating a conviction review unit: Lasak would create such a unit to review past convictions and personally oversee it.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: He says he would remain a member of DAASNY, even though he does not agree with many positions the association takes, in order to change it from the inside.

Betty Lugo

She has been a managing partner at Pacheco & Lugo PLLC since 1992, practicing commercial litigation. She was previously an assistant district attorney in Nassau County.

More information: candidate website and 5 Boro Defenders questionnaire.

On marijuana: Lugo says she would push the NYPD to stop engaging with people in Queens based on the alleged smell of marijuana alone. She would not prosecute “low-level” marijuana offenses.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: She would decline to prosecute most examples of such offenses.

On jails: Lugo would build or refurbish existing jails on Rikers Island, rather than build new ones elsewhere.

On prostitution: Lugo says she would “seriously, seriously consider decriminalizing” sex work, and support diversion courts like the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court.

On tenant harassment: Lugo would create a database to track landlords with accusations of tenant harassment and exchange information with city and federal authorities.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Lugo says she hasn’t gotten any such money and would only accept political action campaign donations from labor unions or public interest PACs.

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: Lugo would review such cases and set up a unit involving members of the community and faith-based communities to decide whether shorter sentences are deserved.

On creating a conviction review unit: She would create such a unit within her office to review past convictions.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: Lugo would join the association, though she disagrees with the group’s stance on discovery reform.

Mina Malik

She is a former deputy attorney general for Washington, D.C., from 2017-2018. Previously, she was a lecturer at Harvard Law School, the executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, special counsel to the Brooklyn district attorney, assistant district attorney in Queens and investigator for D.C. Public Defender Service.

More information: candidate website and Queens for DA accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Would decline to prosecute charges of marijuana possession.

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: Would decline to prosecute all such offenses, and any other charges “that target the poor or are enforced discriminatorily.”

On jails: Supports closing Rikers Island and says that borough-based jails “could be the solution.”

On prostitution: Malik would decline to prosecute sex workers, but would prosecute customers and promoters on a case-by-case basis in cases deemed “coercive and predatory.”

On tenant harassment: Her office would pay attention to housing stability, standing up to abusive landlords and real estate scammers.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Malik said she has not accepted such contributions, but did not comment on whether she would if offered.

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: She is open to sentencing reviews, “particularly for low-level and first-time offenders who do not represent a public safety risk.”

On creating an conviction review unit: Malik would create such a unit within her office to review potential cases of innocence, as well as miscarriages of justice.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: Malik says if she were to join the association, it would be to “band together with other reform-minded DAs to change the culture.”

Jose Nieves

He is a former deputy chief attorney general in the New York state Attorney General’s office, serving from 2016 to 2018. Previously, he was a New York City Department of Correction litigator, aFederal Aviation Administration counsel, U.S. Army Reserve captain, assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.

More information: candidate website and Queens for DA accountability questionnaire

On marijuana: Nieves would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana possession charges, but he says he would prosecute sales when it “threatens public safety.”

On prosecuting “broken-windows” offenses like turnstile jumping or unlicensed driving: He would decline to prosecute most such offenses, instead focusing the resources of the office on prosecuting more serious crimes.

On jails: He wants to close Rikers and incarcerate people in“community detention facilities” instead of “superstructures” like the 29-story jail building planned for Kew Gardens.

On prostitution: Nieves supports the full decriminalization of sex work and would decline to prosecute sex workers. He would set up a dedicated human trafficking unit in the office.

On tenant harassment: His economic crimes bureau would focus on prosecuting corporate developers and large landlords engaged in harrassment. He would train investigators and focus on partnering with other offices like the state attorney general and the New York City Department of Investigation.

On accepting money from corporate PACs: Nieves said he does not accept any money from developers or corporations.

On reviewing sentences for prisoners over age 30: He would look at the circumstances behind crimes, but also the impact of the crime on the community.

On creating an independent conviction review unit: Nieves would create a unit to review past convictions and organize an advisory board to oversee it.

On the District Attorney Association of the State of New York: He would join the association and advocate for progressive ideals among the membership.

Corrections: This post has been updated to clarify Queens Borough President Melinda Katz's stance on prosecuting prostitution. It has also been corrected to reflect that a questionnaire filled out by the candidates was compiled by the progressive public defender group 5 Boro Defenders. 

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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