Tiffany Cabán Wants to Reimagine Criminal Justice in Queens

Tiffany Cabán in Astoria. Photo: Megan Magray

“She was definitely a two, not a one.” Canvassing is an inexact science, but it still has rules, and Tiffany Cabán was adamant on following them. Constituent enthusiasm is charted on a scale of one to five, with one being like Spike Lee level of excitement when he’s courtside at a Knicks game and five being like the Spike Lee level of unimpressed when Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture. And Cabán was determined to be realistic — the middle-age, colorfully caftaned woman who had just pledged her support on a tree-lined block in Queens was not a two. “I like to be conservative,” she said, overruling her staffer. And that is probably the first and last time that the 31-year-old public defender running for Queens district attorney will use the word conservative to describe herself. But it makes sense. Cabán, who faces six other candidates on June 25, represents New York City’s most vulnerable residents in court. And her career has trained her to know that when you’re the underdog, as Cabán and her clients so often are, being conservative about your chances is wise.

In a little over two weeks, Queens County will have a primary for district attorney for the first time in nearly 30 years: Richard A. Brown, a career politician who was elected seven consecutive times, died in office last month. Traditionally, in New York City, district attorneys have seen their job as working closely with the police to convict New Yorkers who break laws, a “tough on crime” vision of criminal justice built on a spike in crime in the 1960s and ’70s. But the end of the crime wave may have opened the door for a new way for DAs to think about criminal justice. “Today New York City is one of the safest cities in the nation,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former assistant DA in Staten Island. “Given the overall consensus to reduce prison and jail populations, plus crime rates being at record lows in cities, it opens up opportunities for district attorneys who do want to focus on how they can invigorate trust in communities and focus on fairness and move away from draconian policies that keep people in prisons,” she said. “The low crime rate in the city keeps this conversation possible.” In the last year, more than three public defenders have been elected DA. Tiffany Cabán wants to be part of that wave.

On the second day we met, Cabán popped out of a black car on a busy corner in Jackson Heights outside her campaign office. It was a gloomy day with a sinister rainstorm threatening, but she was undeterred by the elements. Cabán has spent the last seven years living the unglamorous life of a public defender. The job, which shuffled her back and forth between fusty courthouses, urine-soaked holding cells, and cramped offices, quickly trained her to take pleasure in the little things. For instance: A campaign volunteer had just used chalk paint to post a message on the sidewalk: “Cabán Vote Queens DA,” the Q in Queens affectionately drawn in the shape of a heart. “It looks great!” Cabán said wholeheartedly to the few staff and volunteers who were standing and admiring the message.

As soon as the 31-year-old candidate saw me, she came in for a hug like we were old friends. (My husband, a public defender at Legal Aid, has sat on a case with Cabán, and her campaign manager, Luke Hayes, is brother to my old boss, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.) Though we don’t know one another, she felt familiar: The first-time politician hasn’t yet become chilly toward the media.

And despite the inevitable comparison to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — Cabán is a progressive Latina and part of AOC’s 14th District lies in Queens — the two women occupy different political spaces. The DA is a boroughwide race, representing a broader slice of constituents than AOC’s congressional district. It’s a matter of manner, too. Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Cabán last month, has leveraged traditional media savvy and social media literacy to become a fixture in the national political landscape . Cabán doesn’t have the disposition for that approach. “My mom is so happy because until now I never let anyone take my photo,” she told me in between knocking on doors. It’s safe to say you won’t see Cabán dispensing memes or revealing her skin care on Instagram. She is a career public defender who hadn’t seen the job as a stepping-stone to politics. She only came to run for DA at the urging of two friends, who convinced her that she was perfectly suited for the job. The young lawyer’s politics lie in her understated earnestness, the fact of which she is acutely aware.

Cabán asserts her identities as a public defender and queer Latina who grew up in the community she serves, something she is careful to remind me of, something she views as crucial to her candidacy. “The only difference between me” — and New Yorkers who have had contact with the criminal justice system — “has been either luck or access to certain resources that allowed me to somehow get to where I got.” It’s personal for her. And that is part of her politics.

But she has wised up to right-wing criticisms of embracing identity politics. “My experience matters,” Cabán told a Queens United Independent Progressive audience in February, according to the Intercept. “That is not identity politics; that is me speaking to my understanding around intersectionality and the effects of individual and generational trauma on our communities,” she said.

Cabán wears her jet-black hair in a slick mid-length ponytail. Her suits are fitted and smart, and she rocks black sneakers. A native of the Richmond Hills, her manner is quiet and humble, her smile bright and open-hearted. Like America’s most-well-known lefty DA, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — who is expected to endorse Cabán today — she is running as an untraditional candidate, intent on reforming the system. But Cabán, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is also inspired by another reformer, Rachael Rollins, DA of Suffolk County in Massachusetts, a woman of color who promised to end cash bail and stop prosecuting a range of low-level offenses.

Cabán’s vision for criminal-justice reform shares many of the same goals but goes even further. Like many other reformer-prosecutors, she supports ending cash bail and fully decriminalizing sex work and promises to end cooperation with ICE. But her ambitions lie beyond incremental changes in policy: Cabán wants to change the way New Yorkers understand criminal behavior. She knows it’s an uphill battle. “When I decided to run in this race,” she said, “I went in knowing this is harm reduction in a lot of ways, because there’s such a powerful structure in a place that really is designed to have certain kinds of outcomes,” she continued. “But we can start dismantling that.”

Many crimes, in Cabán’s view, are symptoms of deeper ills, and she’s concerned with root causes and lasting effects: trauma, poverty, subpar education. And a crucial piece will be to change the culture of punishment. “Stability equals public safety, so when we’re talking about nonviolent offenses, there are so many ways that we can make survivors and victims whole and support them, while also supporting the person that’s found themselves touching the criminal-justice system,” Cabán says. She is interested in incorporating “trauma-informed practices” into the DA’s office, an approach to criminal-justice work that takes into account an accused individual’s trauma. For example, “92 percent of all women in California prisons had been ‘battered and abused’ in their lifetimes,” according to the ACLU.

Most DAs, even those who are labeled reformers, are not talking about curbing sentences or considering alternatives to incarceration for violent crimes. (Krasner has mentioned the conversation around violent crime is still third rail, though it shouldn’t be.) But Cabán is not shying away from the reality that even if criminal-justice systems eradicates nonviolent drug offenses, mass incarceration will remain: More people are in state and local prisons for violent offenses than they are for nonviolent drug offenses. “To say that we are going to make a distinction — between violent crime and nonviolent crime — we’re not going to really dismantle the system of mass incarceration and understanding that it’s not about what the nature of the crime is so often but what the driver and causer of the behavior is and what can we do to stop it, to interrupt it, to change it, and we should be looking to do that in every way we possibly can that doesn’t involve putting somebody in a cage.” And that goes for any violent crime. “We will not exclude any crime for consideration for restorative justice and/or alternatives to incarceration,” she wrote to me in a text message. “For cases where those are not a good fit and we seek prison time, we will seek shorter prison sentences, seek restorative processes when survivors request them.”

Cabán insists that even when the justice system has to resort to incarceration, it should look different from the current prison system. “We should be investing in things that much more resemble transitional housing where people have access to health care, to education, to minimum wage, because 97 to 98 percent of people who are removed from their community reenter their communities no better than what they were,” she told me, “in fact oftentimes worse.”

But before she can set about enacting her ambitious agenda, there’s the small matter of winning the election. The race’s Establishment candidate and front-runner, Melinda Katz, is essentially running on continuity with the status quo — unlike Cabán, for instance, Katz says she’ll continue to prosecute sex work and drug offenses other than marijuana. Katz enjoys name recognition as the current borough president of Queens and is also a former councilwoman in the borough. In a low-attention, low-profile race, simple familiarity can tip the scales.

But Cabán believes that her campaign’s organizing muscle can start to shift votes in her direction. During our rainy walk to canvass, she boasted to me about her team’s fundraising skills. Her campaign has outraised all candidates combined in individual donors with 2,545 donations. But the lawyer is not taking corporate dollars, which hinders her ability to raise lots of cash. “I know how to organize,” she told me. “We have hundreds of volunteers,” she said. On my walk back to the subway, hers was the only campaign poster I saw in the window of a laundromat. “People are starting to recognize me,” she told me shyly.

If she can pull off the win on Election Day, attention will immediately be turned to her day-one agenda. She doesn’t plan to “clean house” but wants to retrain her staff in methods imported from public defenders. She wants to bring in a steering committee and have working groups to hold her accountable.

Larry Krasner, who is the most visible reformer-prosecutor, has been criticized for not living up to his promises. The city’s jail population has shrunk by about a third since he was elected, and his office stopped seeking bail for low-level offenses, an undeniably tremendous feat. But as a 2018 New York Times piece notes, no-bail requests and new guidelines for how crimes are prosecuted are not always adhered to in court. “Since March [2018], the A.C.L.U. of Pennsylvania had monitored more than 700 bail hearings. In a letter it sent to the city’s two chief judges in September, the A.C.L.U. said that defendants were still given cash bail in more than 40 percent of these cases,” said the Times report. Sometimes radical reform is beyond the control of a single DA.

Cabán is under no illusions that this race is an easy one. Governor Cuomo earlier this week endorsed Melinda Katz. But Tiff Cabán, the public defender, who still has family in the Woodside Houses in which she grew up, knows where her currency is: with the residents of Queens. “People keep telling me I’m the only one of the candidates they’ve met,” she says before setting out in the pouring rain to knock on doors in her third apartment building of the evening. “We don’t have the money other candidates have, but we have more volunteers than anyone else, and we are going to out organize them,” she said. “We see that as our path to victory.”

When I asked her whether she had moments of feeling uncomfortable with the massive task of taking on the criminal-justice system from the other side, she didn’t equivocate. “Of course,” she said, and when she no longer feels that discomfort, it will be time to stop being DA.

Tiffany Cabán Wants to Reimagine Criminal Justice in Queens