Could Tiffany Cabán Transform the Queens Criminal Justice System?

Could Tiffany Cabán Transform the Queens Criminal Justice System?

The career public defender hopes to join a wave of progressive district attorneys pushing a bold agenda of criminal-legal reform.

Tiffany Cabán (Courtesy of her campaign)

Longtime Queens District Attorney Richard Brown died from complications of Parkinson’s disease while in hospice care early last month. He had served as the borough’s DA for twenty-eight years. His departure triggered a fierce competition between potential successors and has given Tiffany Cabán, a thirty-one-year-old public defender, an opportunity to redefine the purpose of the office.

During his tenure, Brown dropped murder charges against the five New York Police Department officers accused of killing Federico Pereira, who died of asphyxiation while being arrested, and failed to convict three NYPD detectives tried for killing Sean Bell, who was shot at fifty times the night before his wedding. At the same time, Brown received commendations for prosecuting “broken windows” crimes like sex work and graffiti. Cabán’s campaign platform promises a stark departure from that legacy.

Cabán is unique among the candidates for Queens DA. Amid seven other Democratic contenders and one Republican, she is the only career public defender; her experience in the courtroom has consistently been across the aisle from, rather than alongside, district attorneys. Born and raised in Queens, Cabán graduated from New York Law School before beginning her career defending clients who could not afford legal representation, first at the Legal Aid Society and now at New York County Defender Services.

In interviews, Cabán frequently cites her grandfather’s transformation from an abusive Korean War veteran, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, to a kind, older man who lovingly doted on his grandchildren. His transformation demonstrated to her that people can change for the better, if only they are allowed to—a realization that helped inspire her to become a public defender. “I’m somebody who has been fighting the system as a career choice this entire time,” she told me. “I think that’s a really big distinguishing factor.”

More than just a job, Cabán’s work as a public defender shaped her campaign’s platform. She witnessed the structural injustices of the legal system firsthand: clients struggling with addiction from prescription drugs were locked up, while the medical professionals responsible for illegally providing the drugs went uninvestigated. These experiences have crystallized into positions unusual for most DAs: declining to request cash bail or to charge “broken windows” crimes, including simple drug possession; opposing the construction of new jails; and focusing on criminal behavior by employers, landlords, and other traditional allies of local politicians. Taken together, Cabán’s platform expresses the desire to end mass incarceration, albeit through one of the very offices that historically facilitated it.

One of the most-discussed planks of Cabán’s platform is her opposition to prosecuting sex workers, which dovetails with the larger sex work decriminalization movement. In 2004, earlier criminal justice reformers created the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which provided diversion programs for those arrested for sex work. While it succeeded at keeping some sex workers out of jail, the danger of even having them enter the criminal justice system became abundantly clear after the election of Donald Trump, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement began making courthouse arrests, threatening the court’s many undocumented defendants. Cabán has criticized the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, vowing instead to use prosecutorial discretion to prevent sex workers from entering the system any further than their arrests.

Cabán’s campaign promises and experience secured her an endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America at both the local and national levels. As a member of DSA, Cabán sees the possibilities of reforming the criminal justice system through the prism of democratic socialism. For example, she hopes to introduce services for working-class Queens residents to report wage theft or housing rights violations. Volunteers from DSA have raised money, made calls, and knocked on doors for the campaign, creating a groundswell of support. Although Cabán is still running relatively behind in terms of funding—she has refused to accept corporate or real estate campaign donations—other grassroots organizations, such as Voices of Community Activists & Leaders and Make the Road New York, have also come to her side.

“DSA is a big-tent organization without strict ideological requirements aside from broadly defined ideas of socialism, equality, and antiracism,” says Philip Henken of DSA’s Queens Electoral Working Group. “Firmly taking positions like decarceration and no new jails, harm reduction in communities, zero tolerance for police misconduct, prosecution of white collar crimes, no corporate donations—all of which Cabán explicitly supports—is going to be much more of a bellwether of DSA support.”

While she stands out among the contenders for Queens DA, Cabán fits into a national trend of progressive district attorneys. Most recently, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano—who ran on commitments to end cash bail, dismiss marijuana possession cases, and consider immigration implications in charging arrestees—defeated their incumbent opponents in Democratic primaries for district attorney of Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax counties, respectively. With no registered Republican challengers, both are expected to take office in January.

More than Dehghani-Tafti and Descano, the progressive district attorney that Cabán has drawn the most comparisons to is Larry Krasner. Running for DA of Philadelphia on a platform similar to Cabán’s, Krasner beat out primary and general election opponents and took office in January 2018. Cabán hopes to replicate Krasner’s successes, taking up some of his talking points and even soliciting (and receiving) his endorsement.

“There are an awful lot of people who have said they’re progressive,” wrote Krasner in his endorsement. “And yet their deeds, their history, does not match their words. Tiffany’s history matches her words. . . . I want everyone who truly cares about criminal justice reform to get out, vote, and make sure everyone supports Tiffany.”

In Krasner’s first year in office, the number of people in county jail in Philadelphia dropped from 6,500 to 4,700, largely due to his decision not to prosecute various minor offenses. Krasner said last month that his office will eventually divert all arrests for drug possession, effectively ending criminal prosecution for possession in Philadelphia. Predictably, this approach has earned him enemies in the criminal justice system.

But Krasner has also received criticism from progressives. In one of his most high-profile disappointments, Krasner recently attempted to prevent Mumia Abu-Jamal—imprisoned since 1982 following an internationally criticized trial for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer—from appealing his conviction in light of new, possibly exculpatory evidence. Critics suspect that Krasner bowed to pressure from the Philadelphia Police Department, which, as district attorney, he must work with on a daily basis. Krasner eventually allowed Abu-Jamal’s appeal to move forward, but many of the progressives who had previously supported him criticized his handling of the case.

Krasner’s stance on Abu-Jamal’s case reflects the paradox of pursuing criminal justice reform through the district attorney’s office. Progressives campaign on preventing the system from perpetuating injustice. But district attorneys are not only part of that system; they play a significant role in its function.

Cabán hopes to transform the power of the office by changing who wields it. “If we’re really going to combat mass incarceration, it doesn’t come through platitudes, it doesn’t come through hacks in policy,” says Cabán. “It takes bold, at-large, transformative changes.”

Whether running a public defender as a DA is indeed a transformative change, rather than just another hack, remains an open question. As Krasner has demonstrated, prosecutorial discretion can reduce the number of lives destroyed by the office. But the best of intentions must still contend with the job’s structural limitations. If changing who’s in the office is a step forward, it should be on the road to defanging the office itself.

Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the name of the Queens DSA Electoral Working Group member quoted. It is Philip Henken, not Hencken.