As a public defender, Tiffany Cabán often observed that the only real difference between her and the clients she represented was luck. When Cabán was in high school, her dad got a union job, an opportunity that opened doors for her in terms of education and health care, including therapy, and set her on a path to become an attorney in the same working-class neighborhoods where she grew up. “If my clients were given the same kind of opportunities,” she told me, “That’s really the only thing separating us.”
As she campaigns to become the next Queens district attorney, Cabán keeps returning to this message: that for too long, communities like hers have been over-prosecuted by elites who are interested in convictions, not public safety. In a slick campaign ad, she tells us, “My family is from Puerto Rico. I’m a queer Latina from a working-class family. People like us are exactly who the system is trying to keep down.”
On June 25, Queens will vote in its first election for district attorney since 1991. The late Richard Brown held the Queens office for nearly 30 years, running unopposed six times. The contest to replace him, however, is competitive. Cabán faces six other contenders, the most formidable of which is Melinda Katz, an establishment favorite and career politician who, Cabán is quick to point out, has never spent a day in criminal court. All of the candidates have taken up the moniker of the “progressive prosecutor,” promising to administer varying degrees of reform to a broken criminal-justice system. But Cabán, the youngest candidate and the only one with a background in public defense, goes further than any of them.
She wants to close Rikers, halt the construction of new jails, decriminalize sex work and recreational marijuana use, end cash bail and civil-asset forfeiture, reduce recidivism, prosecute ICE, charge crimes with restraint, and seek shorter sentences for felonies. Tackling “the drivers of crime” and diverting people from incarceration—even those who have committed violent offenses—is at the center of her platform.
For many on the left, the idea of a “progressive” district attorney is oxymoronic. Prosecutors have unquestionably fueled the nation’s mass-incarceration crisis, and the requirements of the job are at odds with the restorative-justice measures that many activists identify as the key to true criminal-justice reform. Developed by communities of color whose recourse to the criminal-legal system has always been fraught, restorative justice calls for the cooperation of the perpetrator, victim, government, and broader community to repair the harm caused. By comparison, the crime-and-punishment model of justice that district attorneys have traditionally upheld makes their position an almost intrinsically regressive one. Cabán, who has called herself a “decarceral” rather than a “progressive” prosecutor, recognizes this reality, and wants to transform the role itself.
It will not be easy for Cabán—either to win or to implement her vision from within the DA’s office. But while she entered the race at a disadvantage in name recognition and funding, she is gaining ground. The Queens Daily Eagle reported that Cabán had more individual donations than the other six candidates combined. In the last few months, she’s picked up important endorsements from Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, as well as from immigrant-rights groups like Make the Road. Fellow reformers and activists like Larry Krasner, Cynthia Nixon, and Zephyr Teachout have backed Cabán. And at the Queens Pride Parade on the first Sunday in June, a beaming Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez yelled into the crowd, “If you don’t know now you know—Tiffany Cabán is going to be our next Queens district attorney!” Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement was an especially big moment for the Cabán campaign, a hopeful suggestion that the often-observed similarities between the two women might just foreshadow another insurgent victory.
I spoke to Cabán on a Monday afternoon as she drove to a radio interview with The Wave, Rockaway Beach’s oldest weekly newspaper. When she hopped in the car, she was distracted. There was a leak in her bedroom, and she needed someone to go meet her landlord to take a look at the problem. Over the next several hours, punctuated by calls to her parents, an interlude in Rockaway, and a hasty meal in the car, we talked about her campaign and her vision for the office of the DA.
Isabel Cristo: Let’s talk about why you’re running. You’ve spent your career on the other side of criminal-legal proceedings as a public defender, and now you’re campaigning to become one of the city’s most powerful prosecutors. What was it about the role of district attorney that compelled you?
Tiffany Cabán: I always say that your district attorney is probably the most important, powerful elected official that you can vote for in your lifetime. Historically, it’s been a once-in-a-generation vote, because our DAs are in office for decades. But what we’ve seen across the country is that people are open to re-imagining what our prosecutors could be accomplishing, and open to the possibility of really starting to dismantle our system of mass incarceration. Our DA’s offices have fed into this culture of “convictions at all costs” that hasn’t kept us any safer. What we need to be doing instead is taking a public defender’s approach; having trauma-informed, holistic approaches where our goals are not to punish people for the sake of punishing them, not to cage people as a form of punishment, but to make sure harm doesn’t happen again, to make people safer in actuality.
And also, you know, I grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens, my parents grew up in the Woodside Housing Projects, and those are communities that are over-policed, over-criminalized, and resource-starved. We have communities where when we struggle or experience trauma and ask for help, the government sends cops. And I want to disrupt that and change that.
IC: So much of your platform is about not exercising the DA’s prosecutorial power. But what does it look like for a DA’s office to move away from punishment? It seems like there would be some structural constraints when it comes to implementing a really holistic approach to criminal justice. I mean, at a certain point you’re going to have to put people in jail.
TC: Listen, we need to recognize that this is a system that has its limits and we’re pushing boundaries. I understand that the job is a prosecutorial role. But the goal should be to change behavior and rehabilitate wherever possible, and to minimize the number of situations that arise where you say, “Well, this person needs to be removed from their community.” And we will do that, but we will not do it lightly. When I talk about declining to prosecute or charging with restraint, I’m trying to create an environment where we can throw more of our resources to other areas where we need them so badly. Rapes are actually up in Queens. But the completion rates of prosecuting those cases are quite low. Anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of reports are “unfounded,” and the investigation goes unfinished, and when you look at the numbers in Queens, that number is more like 25 percent. So if we can use our limited resources to better support and serve survivors of rape for example, then that’s certainly worthwhile.
IC: Can you talk a bit about what some of your top priorities in office would be?
TC: The first thing has to be changing the metrics of success. Everything flows from that. We have to say that it’s not about getting convictions of the most severe charge, putting people in jail, getting the longest sentences.
Then, prioritizing the prosecutions of cases that are destabilizing entire communities. As a public defender, I represent clients who steal to support substance-use disorder, but we haven’t been prosecuting doctors who over-prescribe opioids. I represent clients who are criminalized for being homeless, but we’re not prosecuting bad landlords who unlawfully evict their tenants, or predatory lenders who are stealing people’s homes. We’re not prosecuting employers that are stealing wages, misclassifying workers, and taking advantage of their undocumented workers. Targeting and prioritizing those prosecutions is much more effective at promoting public safety in general, because anything that destabilizes large portions of people will naturally increase—not just low-level and nonviolent crime—but violent crime as well.
IC: So beyond just exercising discretion in whom to prosecute, what’s within the power of the DA’s office to address those destabilizing elements? We know these broader issues related to health care, housing, mental-health care, employment, and poverty are intimately tied up in the criminal-justice system. And we also know that there are these collateral consequences of being put through the criminal-legal system that continue to burden people throughout their lives. You’ve said that the DA’s office could become a “clearinghouse for services,” but what does that look like?
TC: One of the things that we can do is expand victims’ and survivor services to make sure that they’re getting access to resources that allow them to get back to their lives. But beyond that, the office is sitting on $100 million of civil-asset forfeiture money, and that’s money that was stolen from our communities. With that money, we can literally bring communities to the table and ask them, where in their neighborhoods do they need that extra support? Do they need money in their hospitals for safer staffing? Do they need more resources for mental-health care? Do they need more money in their schools for after-school services or arts programs? All these things that we’re talking about are all proven to reduce antisocial and criminal behavior.
IC: Getting into some of the specifics of your platform. You’ve talked about how you would “prosecute ICE,” but of course, it’s not possible to prosecute an entire agency. What are the benefits of going after individual agents?
TC: Queens is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, with one of the largest foreign-born populations. I think there are lots of opportunities to be brave around making sure ICE isn’t infiltrating our courthouses, our places of worship, our schools, and that might come in the form of filing suits against ICE agents. It never ceases to amaze me how our criminal-penal codes can be so creatively weaponized against our black and brown communities. So to say we can’t find ways to find other bad actors accountable—I don’t buy it.
IC: And what are some of those mechanisms that you’ll put in place to ensure you’ll be able to keep hearing from the community you’ll represent?
TC: When we get to the DA’s office, we’re going to bring in a community steering committee, and make sure we have working groups with leaders in different areas: folks who have been formerly incarcerated, educational experts, mental-health experts, harm-reduction experts, leaders from community-based organizations. Then beyond that, we also have to be able to meet people where they’re at. We’re going to have regular town halls, at least quarterly, and we’re going to make them truly accessible. We’re going to be providing people with transportation, with food if they need it, with childcare if they need it, so that the community is constantly brought in on these conversations, and we’re continually reevaluating the work we’re doing.
IC: Spurred by the work of Black Lives Matter and a national conversation about the magnitude of mass incarceration, we’re seeing this wave of prosecutors running for office around the country who are trying to remake the job and talk about reform. You’ve got Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Wesley Bell in St. Louis, Rachel Rollins in Boston. What are some of the lessons you’ve taken from their work?
TC: Something that Larry Krasner struggled with in the first few months of his tenure was, after he introduced his reforms, it took him a few months to realize that his line attorneys weren’t always following his directives. We need to have mechanisms in place so that we’re aware of these things as they’re occurring. I see an opportunity for a really great partnership with an organization like Court Watch [a local organization of volunteers that monitor courtrooms]. Because these folks are on the ground, in court, keeping data in real time that we can look to and say, “Oh, this isn’t being done the right way in court, but we can nip this in the bud.”
IC: On that note, there’s sure to be pushback from your new colleagues who may not see eye-to-eye with you on criminal-justice reform.
TC: Yeah, we expect pushback. One of the most important pieces is going to be coming forward with a full outline of our new policies, so that everyone knows what they’re going to be charged with implementing and what they’ll be measured against. We’re also going to increase training on restorative-justice practices, on trauma-informed practices, and on alternatives to incarceration.
Naturally, you’re going to have positions you’re going to need to fill. But what’s exciting about that is that it will be a natural way to diversify the office. Everybody says they recognize how homogeneous of an office this is, how it’s not reflective of our community. But I always say, it’s not enough to just go out and find people and offer them jobs; you have to change the culture. There’s a reason why, as a queer Latina from a low-income background, I became a public defender and not a prosecutor. By instituting changes to the culture of the office, you’re going to attract more people like myself who want to come in and do that kind of work.
In St. Louis, Boston, Philly, there was pushback, and people were worried that everyone would quit. At the same time, résumés were flooding in. And here, we’re talking about New York City. We’re talking about one of the richest, most attractive employment markets in the whole country. So I have no doubt that we will have the best and brightest and most capable available to us from our own communities, who will also reflect the communities they’re meant to be serving.
IC: But as a public defender, you must already have an idea of who some of those prosecutors are who won’t agree with your vision. Is firing prosecutors on the table?
IC: How do you see yourself negotiating a relationship with a police department and police union that has historically been incredibly resistant to reform?
TC: So, we have to have a working relationship with the police department. We know that police departments and DA’s offices have perpetuated the oppression of our black and brown, low-income, immigrant, and LGBT communities. We need to be holding bad police officers accountable, having independent prosecutors in cases with officers, and making it untenable for bad officers to stay employed. But there are also opportunities for partnerships within the structure. We can say, “Hey, we’re here if you want to come to the table and talk about how to get LEAD [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] initiatives in place, things that are working and being implemented in Seattle and Albany with some good results.” So, rather than detaining people, you can take them to a drop-in center, or a treatment center in a non-coercive manner.
We have to stop punting public-health issues to the justice system. I represented a client who struggled with mental-health issues. He would get to a place where he could recognize that couldn’t self-soothe, and he would walk into an emergency room to get help. And every time he did that, he would get arrested. That’s a failure of our system.
IC: Right, so what are some other tools that the DA has in terms of exercising influence over police practices? You can always decline to prosecute, but if the goal is to reduce criminal-justice contact, then it’s also about police who are making arrests, right?
TC: So, there’s a limit to the reach of the office. We can only stop harm at the juncture where we have jurisdiction. We can sort of direct the police department by saying that we won’t be prosecuting these kinds of cases, but we will support you in investigating and making these other kinds of arrests. But the district attorney is also a strong voice in Albany to advocate for legislative changes. It’s really powerful when a DA says, “Hey, we support this legislation that is about, legally, what the police can or can’t do.”
IC: We’ve been talking about pushback from the right, but you also have an activist community that is invested in more radical transformations to the criminal-justice system, like the call for prison abolition, for example. How do you think about your relationship to that movement, and your ability to work to change things from within the system?
TC: The goal that we in the DA’s office should be working towards is population zero. So, in a sense, that goal and the goals of abolition are more aligned than you might think. As a DA, I will be promoting public safety to reduce crime. Which means reducing crime to zero. Which means we would never be in a situation where we need to remove someone from their community. So as long as you are holding that as your goal, I think you’re moving in the right direction.