Just one day after declaring her campaign to run for the Queens District Attorney’s Office, Tiffany Caban, a public defender, was at a meet and greet in St. Albans’ at the home of longtime local activists Donald and Jo-Ann Whitehead on Saturday.
Caban is one of five people running to replace the current DA Richard Brown, 86, who will step down from the post after being in office since 1991.
The other candidates include Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), State Attorney General prosecutor Jose Nieves, Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas, and former Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak.
The Whiteheads have often supported grass roots candidates who do not necessarily have deep pockets, but may have great ideas that will prompt debate and to help get more people to the ballot in the very blue Queens, which has sometimes lagged in voter turnout. Candidates like Lancman and Katz have already raised over $1 million each.
“We feel that if people say they are going to ‘vote Democrat’ or for the Democrat that has been selected by the county and it is automatically written in stone before somebody runs then there is no reason for people to look at our community and think in terms of what services we should be given,” said Jo-Ann Whitehead. “If anybody knows about the District Attorney, there hasn’t been a real race for about 16 years.”
Caban was a staff attorney for Legal Aid Society, currently works for the New York County Defenders Services and she was born in South Richmond Hill to working class parents from the Woodside Projects.
“My dad is a retired elevator mechanic and my mom babysat kids when I was growing up,” said Caban at the Jan. 26 meeting. “I have been a public defender for the past seven years and I have represented over 1,000 clients or families.”
During the meet and greet, the audience of 60 shook their heads in acknowledgement when Caban said, “our criminally justice system is broken.”
“It is probably the single most powerful driver of the continued oppression and marginalization of the same groups that we had historically oppressed and marginalized, whether it is black and brown folks, low-income folks, LGBTQIA+ communities, or our immigrant communities,” said Caban. “The other thing that I learned very quickly is that you can’t talk about the criminal justice system without talking about housing, healthcare, education – they are so deeply intertwined.”
As a public defender her code of ethics has always followed the tenant of “our clients come first,” said Caban. She intends to follow a similar approach to the people of Queens, while not being “punitive for punishment sake” towards those she prosecutes.
“My decision to run and do this is very rooted in my role as a public defender,” said Caban. “The public defender way is a community-based approach, it’s a holistic approach that is very much centered around people and their families and their communities and that is what is sorely lacking in the DA’s office right now.”
She wants to make communities safer not based on arrest quotas, but reducing recidivism.
“How can we make sure [a crime] does not happen again,” said Caban, “so that our communities feel more whole, healthy and more safe in actuality, that is something that the DA’s office hasn’t done.”
As a public defender she has often had accusers’ of her clients come up to her who feel that the DA’s office has been too strict with their sentencing on defendants, especially when it comes to defendants who face jail time for small infractions.
One attendee in the audience asked Caban wouldn’t it be better to make burglary suspects pay back what they stole in full instead of throwing them in prison where they make slave wages and taxpayers have to pay for them to be in prison.
“It makes me feel like I’m getting robbed twice,” said the attendee. “I’m not getting back what I lost.”
According to Caban, it costs taxpayers $144,000 annually to incarcerate one person, which is something so-called fiscal conservatives should be concerned about, especially when arresting people for small infractions like smoking marijuana.
“The culture is that we want arrests, convictions and sentences instead of reducing recidivism rates and making sure that we are applying the law the same across the board, so whether you live in St. Albans or Bayside and you are a victim or accuser of an attack we are going to investigate the same way,” said Caban. “Sometimes an accuser is upset when the DA takes a paternalistic approach…and we need to listen to the community and say ‘what is it that you need’ and take a holistic approach…and support community-based organizations that are helping with recidivism.”
Donald Whitehead was happy about the turnout for the meet and greet.
“The DA’s race is of major importance,” said Mr. Whitehead. “It has everything to do with the old political system. This is about families, about justice and working together to make improvements.”