Under longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, Queens’ prosecutorial policies were among the most aggressive and punitive in the five boroughs of New York City. Assuming Tiffany Cabán is certified as the winner of Queens’ Democratic district attorney primary and goes on to win in November, Queens stands to become one of the most progressive. She has promised to look for alternatives to incarceration and decline to prosecute some misdemeanors and violations.
But other district attorneys in neighboring boroughs have been moving towards more rehabilitation-focused practices in recent years. So will Cabán actually be that unusual?
Based on her campaign positions, she would indeed be the furthest left – more so than even Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Gonzalez ran on his record as a prosecutor and a platform of progressive policies, including ending prosecution for low level marijuana offenses and not requesting bail in the majority of misdemeanor cases. He has implemented those ideas and he recently revealed the findings of his Justice 2020 Committee, a group of activists, former prosecutors and defense attorneys, police officers, former incarcerated people and community members. The goal was to find better ways to prosecute and solutions for mass incarceration, offering 17 core reform recommendations like community engagement, more early-release options and increased transparency.
All of the district attorneys in New York City proper are Democrats, but their approaches vary widely. Manhattan DA Cy Vance has been shifting in a more reformist direction for years, although he also came under criticism from civil rights advocates for continuing to prosecute minor quality-of-life offenses and allegations of possible favoritism toward donors.
Here is a look at the subtleties of New York’s district attorneys’ positions on the issues on which Cabán has promised a new direction.
Tiffany Cabán, Queens County
More information can be found on her campaign site.
On cash bail: Cabán is in favor of ending cash bail.
On jails: She supports the effort to close the jail complex on Rikers Island and opposes the creation of new prison facilities. She has also indicated that she will focus on alternatives to prosecution to send fewer defendants to jails.
On marijuana: She will decline to prosecute recreational marijuana users, as long as their behavior is not endangering others.
On dedicated conviction review units: She plans to create a task force to release those incarcerated for offenses no longer being prosecuted and another to ensure that their record is cleared.
On turnstile jumping, “broken windows” policing and quality-of-life crimes: As part of her commitment to community solutions and decarceration, she would not prosecute what she calls “crimes of poverty.” For example, when a homeless person is arrested for trespassing in a business or apartment building lobby and instead working on placing the person in housing to solve the underlying problem.
On sex work: She will use prosecutorial discretion to decline to charge sex workers. Cabán is in favor of ultimately completely decriminalizing sex workers and their clients.
On campaign finance: During her campaign, she did not accept money from corporate PACs.
Eric Gonzalez, Brooklyn (Kings County)
On cash bail: In tandem with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., Gonzalez has instructed that bail not be requested for cases where jail time is not recommended. Part of this policy requires assistant district attorneys state a reason for requesting bail.
On jails: Gonzalez has committed to sending fewer people to Rikers Island through his cash bail policy and efforts to use prosecution as an alternative, rather than the default. While he has not explicitly stated a position on the movement to close Rikers Island, he has said that Brooklyn has alternatives to the island.
On marijuana: In 2018, he vacated over 1,000 warrants for marijuna possession misdemeanors and wiped out 28 convictions for the same crime. He says his office uses prosecutorial discretion to decline to prosecute most non-violent marijuana related offenses.
On dedicated conviction review units: The Brooklyn DA’s office has gotten a lot of attention for its existing Conviction Review Board (CRU), which investigates claims of wrongful incarceration. Critics say it has become ineffective, but Gonzalez recently put more resources towards a new and improved Post Conviction Review Bureau, adding parole and clemency units.
On turnstile jumping, “broken windows” policing and quality-of-life crimes: Gonzalez began declining to prosecute offenses like turnstile jumping in 2017 and has solidified that stance through his Justice 2020 initiative to lower the number of people going through the criminal justice system. Prior to his election, he worked on former Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson’s 2015 Begin Again initiative which worked to resolve outstanding summons for low-level offenses, preventing unnecessary arrests.
On sex work: He is for decriminalizing some prostitution-related crimes and offering alternatives to court intervention in the prosecution of sex workers. He supports arresting those who purchase sex.
Cy Vance Jr., Manhattan
More information can be found on his office's website.
On cash bail: District Attorney Vance has ended requests for bail in the case of non-violent misdemeanors in partnership with Brooklyn DA Gonzalez.
On jails: Vance supports the movement to close the prison complex, but his office is responsible for sending the most inmates there.
On marijuana: He will not prosecute marijuana possession or smoking cases and will be sealing past marijuana convictions. Those who intend to sell marijuana are not covered by this policy.
On dedicated conviction review units: Implemented conviction integrity unit to investigate claims of innocence and in an effort to ensure wrongful convictions do not occur.
On turnstile jumping, “broken windows” policing and quality-of-life crimes: When Vance announced that Manhattan alone had erased over 200,000 outstanding warrants, he added that his office would no longer prosecute fare beating or turnstile jumping.
On sex work: His office has a policy to use prosecutorial discretion and community groups to keep sex workers from having criminal records.
Darcel Clark, Bronx County
More information can be found on the Bronx DA site.
On cash bail: Clark has instituted a policy of not asking for bail in cases where jail time is not recommended.
On jails: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark is focused on the task force that investigates violence and abuse at Rikers while it is still open. She has not been quoted with a stance on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the complex.
On marijuana: In the Bronx, Clark acknowledges the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and in an effort to mitigate that, declines to prosecute cases where the only charge is minor marijuana possession or smoking in public. However, she will not erase past convictions until legislation can be passed.
On turnstile jumping, “broken windows” policing and quality-of-life crimes: Nothing specific on declining to prosecute, but Clark presides over the Another Chance program to resolve outstanding warrants without arrests and participated in citywide vacating of decades old outstanding warrants.
On sex work: Clark has said that sex workers can have their record expunged if they complete mandated counseling and are not arrested again within six months, but only state legislators can decriminalize.
Michael McMahon, Staten Island (Richmond County)
More information can be found on the Office of the Richmond County District Attorney website.
On cash bail: In an opinion piece, Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon vehemently disagreed with the cash bail reforms that passed in Albany, calling them a hindrance to combating crime.
On jails: It is MacMahon’s view that it would be more practical to invest money in community diversion programs and renovating and modernizing the Rikers Island jail complex than to close it. He says key investments in mental health services and vocational training are particularly important. Relatively few of the inmates in Rikers come from Staten Island, and under the proposal Staten Island would not get a new facility.
On marijuana: Last year, McMahon declined to take a stance on the more lenient policies in Brooklyn and Manhattan and said that he would uphold the law until it changed. He points out that Staten Island nevertheless has had the fewest marijuana prosecutions of all the five boroughs.
On dedicated conviction review units: After receiving funding last year, he founded an official Conviction Integrity Review Unit to review old cases in January 2019.
On turnstile jumping, “broken windows” policing and quality-of-life crimes: He has instituted a Fresh Start program to clear outstanding warrants for low-level offenses without arrests, but does not support issuing blanket amnesty for these offenses.
On sex work: MacMahon says he rarely prosecutes sex workers, but does not support decriminalizing prostitution because it makes it harder to prosecute pimps and human traffickers.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that some of Vance's policy shifts began before more recent criticisms of his policies. It has also been updated to reflect responses sent by Michael McMahon's office after deadline.