Interviews & Profiles

Melinda Katz says she’s ignoring the political winds

A Q&A with the Queens district attorney who had Gov. Kathy Hochul's ear on bail reform.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz took office at one hell of a moment for criminal justice in New York City.

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz took office at one hell of a moment for criminal justice in New York City. Amy Lombard

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz took office at one hell of a moment for criminal justice in New York City. Much lauded changes limiting when judges can ask for bail took effect on Jan. 1, 2020 – Katz’s first day on the job, after being elected in 2019. Less than three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The number of reported crimes cratered, and court went virtual. Then, Black Lives Matter marches responding to the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, leading to renewed scrutiny of police and prosecutors. Just six months into Katz’s tenure, further adjustments to bail, discovery and speedy trial laws took effect. Now, more than two years in, the number of reported crimes is rising in Queens to rates that haven’t been seen in more than a decade. That’s led by increases in felony assault and grand larceny, while the most extreme crimes, including murder, rape and shootings have held steady, comparable to historic levels. 

Katz took over the office after the late Richard Brown, who was Queens district attorney for 28 years. Brown started in the “Tough on Crime” 1990s, and he earned a reputation for maintaining that mindset – sending more misdemeanor defendants to Rikers Island than any other prosecutor in the city. And he was anything but a reformer, opposing the creation of a commission on prosecutorial misconduct, as well as the plan to close Rikers Island. Katz promised a less carceral approach and reorganized the structure of the office. 

She got rid of the “extremely unfair” and “horrible” policy, “that if you didn't waive your rights to a grand jury, you got nothing but a top count.” She also fulfilled a campaign pledge to create – for the first time in Queens – a Conviction Integrity Unit. She said it has vacated 72 convictions so far, including 60 in one fell swoop that relied on testimony from cops who had been convicted of crimes themselves, including lying on the stand. “If your conviction is based on a cop who later on was convicted of perjury or falsifying documents, I think that they should be vacated,” Katz said. 

It’s not just cops. Katz’s Homicide Bureau Chief Brad Leventhal left the office last year after a judge ruled that he had deliberately withheld evidence in a 1996 murder trial he worked on as an assistant district attorney. Now, her commitment to clean prosecution may be getting tested once again. Katz is retrying Prakash Churaman for a murder he allegedly committed at age 15, after his original conviction was overturned on appeal. But the online outlet Hell Gate reported in May that two NYPD detectives who led the investigation were parties in a $2 million settlement after allegedly ignoring exonerating evidence in a separate 2015 murder investigation. Katz’s office declined to comment on the ongoing case.

Asked to reflect on her tenure so far, she looked back to her 2019 election, where Katz, then the Queens borough president, defeated democratic socialist public defender Tiffany Cabán in the primary by just 60 votes, out of more than 90,000 cast. She’d been a politician most of her career, and wasn’t in the courtroom as a prosecutor or a defense attorney. 

Katz declared that she was able to roll with the punches “because there were very few habits that I had … being able to be flexible, being able to respond to changes in the world, being able to make changes when it comes to criminal justice reforms, when it comes to laws being changed, is key. It's a brave type of justice, and it’s a steady hand during very turbulent times.”

City & State sat down with Katz in May in her office inside Queens County Criminal Court. Sitting on the coffee table was that day’s New York Post, with a front page focused on the murder of Zhiwen Yan, the food delivery worker who was shot in Forest Hills – a reminder of the cases Katz’s office deals with. Katz talked about giving the governor feedback on bail laws, whether she’s listening to New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ requests and her concerns about the new jail in Queens. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It was reported that the governor sought your advice specifically when making adjustments to the bail laws in the budget this year. What did you think of the final compromise?

So the first thing to note is that the bail law changes of 2020 were desperately needed. We needed to make a more fair and equitable way of holding people before they have a trial. So making misdemeanors nonqualifying, I think, was a good first step. We've also learned that the Legislature saw that things needed to be changed, and they did those changes. And it wasn't only the bail laws. It was discovery laws, it was gun laws. And I think that they were desperately needed. I think the last changes that went through the system were a great start. Being able to arrest people for hate crimes instead of giving them (desk appearance tickets) is, I believe, important for the safety of the community. Being able to put people, sometimes, (in jail) on a second open DAT-able offense, which is some misdemeanors, I think are important as well, to be able to look back on whether someone should be held. But I think they kept the basic bones of the original law, which was changed for a reason. 

Whether you believe that people should ever be at Rikers or not, there should be a first-class system in place.

You’ve previously endorsed ending all cash bail and just giving judges discretion – 

I still do.

But of course, your office is still, in many cases, asking for cash bail. What do you think needs to change? What’s stopping you from simply ending the practice of cash bail in the borough of Queens?

I am an incredible advocate of a no cash bail system. I've been very open and honest about that. We have written op-ed pieces on it with the other DAs. The problem we have here, and one of the discussions that we do have with the Legislature quite a bit, is that bail is still one of the few tools that we have. We don't have community safety in the law yet. I do think we should. You can't get to no cash bail until we can make an honest assessment of whether someone poses a risk of flight and a risk of community safety. I think those are two extremely important conversations to have, in conjunction with having the conversation of no cash bail. I've been working with the mayor's office in better pretrial services. So as we have someone who is being arraigned and trial is not yet happening. Why can't we send them to mental rehabilitation? Why can't we send them to drug rehab? Why can't we put them in a workforce development program? Why can't I give them a mentorship program? Instead of asking for cash bail? We don't really do that yet. And it's not a tool available to us yet. But we are working to make sure that, soon, I would hope, that those tools would be available.

Speaking of the mayor's office, Eric Adams has been saying that he wants to see prosecution of turnstile jumping and other low-level crimes like public urination. Is your office choosing to prosecute those charges when they come before you?

Honestly, I don't think we've had those cases yet. If there's a warrant out for someone's arrest, we would deal with the underlying charge. I know that the mayor has just formed a task force. I'm hoping to be part of that task force actually, to be able to figure out what to do. I think there has to be some equity and fairness. Right, people are paying their toll and the person next to them is jumping the turnstile. So I do think we need to do something about it. 

Amy Lombard

Part of my interpretation of why the mayor is calling for this prosecution is he's looking for a reason why crime is up. He's looking to explain it. The seven major crimes are up this year. Murders are little down, but still high. Felony assaults are spiking. There are more shooting victims so far this year than any year since 2012. Why do you think that is?

It's important to remember that the mayor and the speaker of the City Council, Adrienne Adams, also talked about the fact that we need to work on the economics and the reason that crime is up. You cannot prosecute your way out of any of the crime that is going on right now. You have to look at the economics, training, what communities are getting, how the schools are working, all of that – but you can do both at the same time.

As you talk about economics – do you blame the crime spike on the economic situation caused by COVID-19 and other factors?

The crimes that are happening are because people are choosing to pick up a gun and use it or rob people. But the issue is, why are they doing that? And if you want to put food on the table for your family, we need to make sure that there are services available so that you're trained, and so that you can get the services that you need for your family and for your kids. But I think you have to address it both ways. We can't assume that if we try to make everything perfect, that we're also not going to prosecute. The drivers of crime (who) need to understand the accountability for their actions are going to be prosecuted.

When is the last time you visited a jail?

I don't know, two months ago, I guess? A month ago. I've been to Sing Sing recently, and I've been to Rikers recently, within the last two months.

It’s not actually working cases, right? You’re just seeing the situation?

With Sing Sing, I toured it with the warden, I learned about the programs that they give to people that are serving time there. I learned about the schedule that they have. We saw the different areas of the prison. 

At Rikers, a lot of the discussion was focused on the problems with the health care issues and whether or not we could see a different answer. New York City is the best city in the world. I can't imagine that we can't have a first class detention center for those that are sent there. Whether you believe that people should ever be at Rikers or not, there should be a first-class system in place.

Given the acute violence crisis at Rikers now and the spread of COVID-19 over the past two years, what’s your responsibility? Do you feel like you need to be second-guessing decisions to send anybody there?

The minute COVID hit and we were asked by the administration and on our own, we did review the pretrial cases that we had there. We looked at the requests of leniency to let people out of Rikers. We were involved with several of those, we didn't oppose a lot more. So that's number one.

Ever since I've been here, we are looking at almost every single case. And we've set new policies on when to ask for bail or when to ask for (release on recognizance), or when to ask for supervised release. We look at electronic monitoring. We look at how we can do that on a citywide basis as opposed to a home basis. So I think that we, just by virtue of who I am, have been taking a second look and look at every single case with scrutiny as to whether or not there should be pretrial detention at all.

Do you track how many people are going to jail, supervised release, etc., compared to the Brown era? 

The law has changed drastically. It's hard to compare from the old days of what judges gave, because you could actually ask for bail on misdemeanors, on nonviolent crimes. There was a whole qualifying aspect for bail asks that don't exist since my administration started on January 1. I can only tell you that out of about the 6,500 people, last I checked, that were at Rikers, we had, I believe, about 600 (Katz’s office followed up to say that as of May 12, of the 5,483 people incarcerated in city jails, 632 were sent from Queens). And I will tell you that the largest percentage, I think it’s 80 to 90% of them, are there because of a violent crime. (Per city stats, just 55% of people sent to jail from Queens in the second half of 2021 were charged with a violent felony.) If I'm not mistaken, about half of them are remanded. (Per city stats, 30% of people sent to jail from Queens were remanded.)Instead of asking for $500,000 bail, where in the old days, people would be kept in, we ask for remand.

It’s more intellectually honest.

I believe it’s more honest.

The Queens jail is being rebuilt right outside your office here. How do you feel about the plan to close Rikers and build four new jails?

So as the borough president, I voted against the project here because I thought it was too big. There was, I believe, at the time, 1,500 or something beds. They're talking about putting in a few hundred beds here (886 beds, per latest documents). Which is great if crime is low. I do worry about the ability to expand if we had to. But I think it is a good mission, to be able to get a lower amount of people into the criminal justice system. And I think with that mission in mind, it's an interesting idea to keep people close to their loved ones. I worry a little bit about all the women being here, and in the same facility as the men. We’re now in the middle of discussions about how that looks and what's going to happen on that.

I think that we can’t forget that people have a right to fair trials. But they also have a right to walk their children to the school playground.

Putting on your political hat now – I’m thinking about how the Democratic candidate lost the race for Nassau County DA last year. And all over the state it seems that Democrats are worried they’re going to be blamed for crime and lose seats. Do you feel political pressure to change how you do this job? To what seems like a public desire to be tougher on crime?

I look at my job as being the steady hand. I try not to waver from that, because that defeats the definition of a steady hand. We have prosecuted drivers of crime from the minute I got in here. We have made a priority: gun violence, traffickers, ghost guns – the polymer pipeline, which I think is one of the most critical things to attack as a prosecutor. At the same time, from the moment I got here, we've not prosecuted sex workers, we didn't prosecute for low level amounts of marijuana. I chose not to prosecute, during the executive order, for curfew violations or social distancing because I knew in my heart that it was an excuse for stop and frisk, and I wasn't going to do it. We have vacated thousands of outstanding warrants for sex work, prostitution and walking while trans. We have vacated warrants for marijuana, those that were from 2 to 3 ounces. So from my point of view, I have to do my job. We get people that call here and talk to me about either defendants or victims. And I make it clear, today they're talking for the victim, tomorrow they may be talking for the defendant or vice versa. I have to keep my eye steady. I need to make sure that it is consistent. And that means that you don't act like the wind.

You made quite a case here. You almost sound like you’re part of the progressive prosecutor movement. Do you take on that title? Do you consider yourself to be a progressive prosecutor?

I consider myself to be a fair and progressive prosecutor, yes. But I think that we can't forget that people have a right to fair trials. But they also have a right to walk their children to the school playground. They also have a right to make sure that their parents are safe when they want to go to a senior center. They have a right to go walk their dog without getting shot. So I think that there's a way to be a progressive prosecutor and still hold people accountable. But one of my jobs is to get guns off the street. One of my jobs is to make sure that you can go to a mosque, or a gurdwara or a synagogue and not have to worry about your safety.

You mentioned marijuana before. We're in the middle of a transition where it's decriminalized, there's people selling it openly. What's been your approach in this in-between? Have you prosecuted any cases of unlawful sale? Or is it like, hands off, let's wait till it's legalized?

Selling is still illegal. And, usually, not always, leads to other things. The smoking of marijuana, we have not prosecuted for (possession) under 2 ounces. I will tell you my biggest concern with marijuana is driving while high. We have this test of whether or not you have marijuana in the mouth, but I do hope very quickly that modern technology catches up with being able to do a true test of whether or not someone is high on marijuana while driving. That concerns me greatly. Judgment while driving has to be impeccable. We have taken a very, very stringent view of drunk drivers and intoxicated drivers in any way. And we'll continue to do that.

There’s a supervised injection site open in Manhattan now. The mayor wants to expand them. Would you like to see them in Queens?

I'd like to see them wherever it's appropriate. I think that they're needed. I think that we need to create safe spaces for people to get services to be able to do what they do and safety at injection sites. And I wrote a letter on that with other DAs. 

Broadly, what is New York’s biggest challenge when it comes to crime and justice?

If we want to have lower crime rates, you cannot prosecute your way out of it. And the mayor and the speaker of the council have been very vocal on this as well. I put out a $2 million RFP for youth wraparound services, because I believe that the youth need hope. I go out in the community, I'll go to basketball games, I'll go to food giveaways. I had one coach of a team ask me, why are you here? You're the district attorney. Why here at this basketball game in the community? And I said, because the first time the youth see me should not be when I'm coming to get them. The first time they see me should be when I'm trying to keep them out of the courtroom to begin with.