ICE & Sex Work: Queens Race Tests Limits of Progressive Prosecution

Still standing in Flushing, Queens, the Unisphere was commissioned as part of the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

(CN) – New York City’s most ethnically diverse borough, the landing point for and home to many of the city’s immigrants, will head to the polls Tuesday for a primary that will help decide whether their next top prosecutor will target U.S. immigration officials who violate civil rights.

That is one of the headline-grabbing proposals on the platform of Tiffany Cabán, a public defender vying to replace late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, who died in May at age 86.

Cabán, who also calls for decriminalizing sex work and ending the war on drugs, will be facing off against five other Democratic hopefuls in Tuesday’s primary, but in a sense each of the contenders will be running against Brown’s legacy.

Brown took office 28 years ago during a crime wave, practicing a harsh brand of criminal justice that has since fallen out of fashion in the Democratic Party for fueling mass incarceration. The most recently available data showed that Queens sent more people to Rikers Island for minor offenses than any other borough, prompting New York City Councilman Rory Lancman to dub the borough “the misdemeanor incarceration capital of New York City.”

Representing the most dramatic break from that tradition, Cabán has drawn acclaim and blowback from high places. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have endorsed the 31-year-old for Queens district attorney, as have Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times.

As a Latina woman in frequent conflict with the Democrats’ local political machine, Cabán has regularly been compared to Ocasio-Cortez, but she is more often compared to other former public defenders like Larry Krasner, who improbably took over and reshaped Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office. Cabán’s opponents are Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president; Jose Nieves, a former deputy chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office; Greg Lazak, a former judge; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau county prosecutor; and Mina Malik, also a former prosecutor in Queens and Washington.

Councilman Lancman recently dropped out of the race and endorsed Katz. Previously though, he depicted himself as a candidate of reform.

“I am running to break that cycle of over-policing and mass incarceration,” Lancman declared in a debate on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show,” touting his record as a councilman in opposing cash bail and attacking so-called “broken windows” policing, where petty offenses like graffiti and subway-fare evasion are vigorously prosecuted.

When it comes to supporting Cabán’s competitors, a former police commissioner who was one of the architects of broken windows appears to be on the same page as Lancman.

Linking to a Daily News editorial opposing Cabán’s plan to decriminalize prostitution, Bill Bratton tweeted: “The social justice movement [sic] out of control.”

“Heaven help Queens as it decends [sic] into an anything goes utopian anarchy,” Bratton wrote.

Katz, who is widely perceived to be the frontrunner in the race, used similar rhetoric in an attack ad that depicted Cabán as “dangerously wrong” on crime and “barely out of law school.”

Cabán, who has boasted about representing more than a thousand indigent clients as a federal defender, has not been shy about attack ads, either. One of her video ads accused Katz of being part of the “corrupt” political machine that protects an unscrupulous real estate industry “getting rich off foreclosures.”

In May, the Real Deal reported that the industry accounted for $158,300 of the $560,000 that Katz reported raising in mid-January.

As Election Day nears, Katz and Cabán’s rivalry has emerged as the race to watch, igniting debate about the boundaries of progressive prosecution in the Trump era.

Both candidates tout the buzz phrases of “community-centered” and “community-based” law enforcement, but Cabán’s proposals would represent a sea change that would uniquely impact Queens.

The site of both New York City airports, Queens calls itself the World’s Borough for being home to people from more than 100 nations and speaking more than 130 languages. Although both candidates have spoken out against Trump’s immigration policies, only Cabán has run on a platform of prosecuting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who exceed their authority.

Queens also received a disproportionate share of prostitution arrests, particularly in the areas of Flushing and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, which has been labeled the “epicenter” of New York City sex trafficking.

The death of Yang Song, a massage parlor employee in Flushing, has been a flashpoint for those who believe policing of the sex trade has gone too far. In 2017, Yang fell four stories to her death while trying to escape a police raid. Her family members and attorney claim that an undercover police officer assaulted her and pressured her to become an informant, but the Queens district attorney’s office cleared police of wrongdoing.

While opponents of decriminalization raise the fear of trafficking, human rights groups like Amnesty International have argued that permitting consensual sex work will allow law enforcement to put the focus where it belongs: clamping down on forced labor.

NYPD data show that conducting such an experiment in Queens could have a particularly high impact. Prostitution arrests from the beginning of the year through the end of March showed more than double the number of records in Queens (156) than Brooklyn (75), its closest borough in terms of enforcement.

Data showed women of Asian and Pacific Island descent between ages 25 and 44 were arrested in the largest numbers, followed by white Hispanic women from the same age group. Most of the men charged with prostitution-related offense were also predominantly people of color, particularly Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and black.

The winner of Tuesday’s Queens district attorney primary is widely expected to cruise to victory in the ultimate election, in a deep blue borough.

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