Queens Democrats Veer Left in Prosecutor Primary Race

Democratic district attorney candidate Tiffany Caban reacts as she is greeted by supporters Tuesday in Queens, New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

(CN) – Defeating the Democratic Party machine, defense attorney Tiffany Cabán landed one step closer Tuesday to fundamentally reshaping criminal justice in Queens. The insurgent candidate for district attorney wants to end the drug war and decriminalize sex work in a borough known for the harsh prosecution of petty crimes.

“I’m a 31-year-old queer Latina public defender whose parents grew up in the Woodside housing projects,” Cabán told cheering crowds as she announced her primary night victory. “And I decided to run.”

By more than 1,000 votes, Cabán soundly beat Queens borough president Melinda Katz, who in turn eclipsed the other five candidates combined. The closest third, former judge Greg Lasak, barely notched more than 14% of the vote despite broad support by law-enforcement groups.

In choosing Cabán, Queens Democrats issued a mandate for a radical departure from the policies of late Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, a tough-on-crime prosecutor who died in May at the age of 86.

Shortly before his death, statistics showed that Queens sent more people to Rikers Island for minor offenses under his watch than any other borough, giving it the reputation as the “misdemeanor incarceration capital of New York City.”

Cabán vowed to swap these traditions for those progressive prosecutors such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, running on a platform of reducing mass incarceration and eliminating racial injustice in law enforcement.

In many ways Cabán has gone farther than her predecessors, though, with her slate of ambitious proposals. She has called for prosecuting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for civil rights abuses in a borough whose population is larger than six states and includes immigrants from more than 100 nations. Both New York City airports land in Queens, which enjoys the reputation as the World’s Borough.

Using information from New York City’s Open Data portal, this chart shows NYPD prostitution arrests by borough for the first quarter of 2019. (Source: NYC’s Office of Management Analysis and Planning)

Cabán’s campaign propelled decriminalizing sex work into the national conversation. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, endorsed her in the primary contest, and Warren expressed openness to the idea of eliminating criminal penalties for prostitution.

Queens receives 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.

NYPD data show that prostitution-related 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.

Cabán promised to stop referring these cases to prosecution, if elected. She is widely expected to sail to victory in a general election a borough that overwhelmingly votes Democrat. 

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