The gridiron helmets were off last week between six of the seven Queens district attorney candidates at a Criminal Justice Reform Forum hosted by the Players Coalition and the New England Patriots free safety football player Devin McCourty at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria.
NFL football players Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins founded the non-profit Players Coalition in 2017 to address social injustice and racial inequality at the federal, state and local level through advocacy, awareness and education.
“At the Players Coalition, we’ve noticed more and more that people are just fed up with the criminal justice system,” said the McCourty. “For far too long the tough on crime policies that were made to protect our citizens has led to mass incarceration, mass supervision and it’s harming the people that need our protection the most. Mostly people of color and of low-income.”
The first half of the forum was cordial as candidates including Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), public defender Tiffany Cabán and former prosecutors Mina Malik, José Nieves and Betty Lugo discussed what they would do to implement cash bail, elaborated on their diversion program ideas and explained their outlook on sentencing.
But things got heated in the latter half of the evening as they posed questions to each other.
“Ms. Cabán has less than six years practicing law,” said Nieves. “She has never led a group larger than five people, how is it possible that you could lead an agency of over 600 people?”
While Cabán may have the least experience and led the smallest team among the candidates, she highlighted the number of clients that she has represented as an attorney.
“I have seven years experience as a criminal defense lawyer representing over 1,000 clients on cases from turnstiles to homicides,” said Cabán.
She also emphasized that public defenders have long been champions of progressive criminal justice reforms for many years.
“These are the things that public defenders have been fighting for on the frontlines in court for decades,” said Cabán. “I have a team, including former career prosecutors with supervisory experience that are ready to come in the office with me in the areas where I need support because I am not going to be somebody and to do this alone, we do this as a team.”
Malik called into question Katz’s previous political support of the death penalty, her lack of prosecutorial skill and accused her of being deficient when it came to criminal justice reform.
“Many may not know that 50 years ago this June, my mother was killed in a drunk driving accident,” said Katz. “When I got to the Assembly there was certain anger issues that I was dealing with at the time.”
Katz was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1994 to 1999. She later was in the City Council from 2002 to 2009 and became Borough President in 2013.
“As I grew and started working on different laws, and I got the opportunity 10 to 15 years later on in the City Council to vote against the death penalty,” said Katz. “The moment I voted for that I knew it was the wrong decision to make.”
Despite not having a prosecutorial background, Katz considered that a strength.
“I am not a career prosecutor,” said Katz. “I am not the reason or the cause that all of us are up here talking about reform.”
Lugo grilled Lancman on what he has done to help or further the careers of people of color throughout his tenure as a politician.
“The first thing you learn as a lawyer is to not ask a question you do not know the answer to,” said Lancman, who represents City Council District 24, one of the most diverse districts in Queens. “The majority of my staff at the City Council are people of color and the majority of my staff are women.”
Lancman used his time to also call out Katz’s record for lacking criminal justice reform and for voting for the death penalty twice.
“So people evolve and part of the problem with the District Attorney’s office is that it has not evolved,” said Katz. “Even Councilman Lancman has evolved. In the year 2,000 he answered a questionnaire that asked “do you support the death penalty” and he answered yes.”
In a survey by Vote Smart, a non-partisan website that profiles political candidates across the country and their voting record, Lancman indicated that he supported the death penalty in New York.
Katz inquired how Lugo would work to keep the mentally ill out of the prison system.
“I would make it a policy that everybody would receive training and bring in professionals to make sure my staff would have mental health awareness,” said Lugo.
Lugo also suggested that ADAs should receive mental health and wellness services too.
Cabán was the third person to question Katz during the event.
“We have all talked about how we are going to target bad actors,” said Cabán. “You have taken over a $250,000 from real estate and the prison industrial complex money, how do reconcile that with your platform?”
Katz went on to imply that the funds she receives from different organizations have no bearing on her policy.
“I have cost developers all across the city hundreds and hundreds of millions by changing the culture the New York City Council 20 years ago when we started doing public labor agreements to make sure they were using good labor in all of the projects they were doing,” said Katz. “That is why I am the only candidate that has created a Bureau of Housing Fraud.”
The primary for the Queens District Attorney’s Office is June 25.