The district attorney hopeful wants to dismantle the system and become Queens County’s first female, queer, Latinx, and youngest elected official.
Having represented more than 1,000 clients over a span of seven years, public defender and Queens County district attorney nominee Tiffany Cabán has witnessed the abuse her community has experienced and is well aware it needs change.
“I got into this race back in January thinking that it would be an incredible win just to be able to contribute to the conversation and push people on their positions,” Cabán shares with CHICA. “Now we’re in a place where we can bring justice and incredible changes to an office that has functioned in the same way for the past 30 years.”
If the 31-year-old wins Tuesday’s primary election, she has a real chance of winning the general in November and replacing Richard A. Brown, who was elected in 1991 and served as Queens County DA until his death earlier this year. Cabán, who is of Puerto Rican descent, would also represent a handful of firsts for Queens—she’d be the first openly queer, first Latinx, first woman, and youngest person to ever hold office in New York City’s largest borough.
Born in Richmond Hills, Queens, the progressive rising star was exposed to the mistreatment of marginalized communities while attending a Catholic high school in nearby Fresh Meadows, a neighborhood in which Latinx make up only 9.9 percent of the population. She quickly realized how Queens leadership had done a disservice to the people of her community. “There are communities that certainly are over-policed, over-criminalized, and resource-starved in a lot of ways,” she explains. “And you could see the ways that those other communities had access to different stabilizing resources. When we need help, the government sends cops. When you’re in other places that need help, they get the services—[the government sends] support.”
While reckoning with the fact that the criminal justice system can be racist, classist, and oppressive toward black, brown, and immigrant communities, Cabán believes that public safety is necessary for stability. She also understands that the immigrant community’s trust is something she has to continue to build. “Our immigrant community, especially here in Queens, is not protected by the district attorney—[the office] cooperates with ICE. They have gone on with prosecutions that they said they knew would lead to deportation.” This action has caused a decline in immigrants seeking justice services, mainly out of fear. According to a report conducted by the Immigrant Defense Project, 202 courthouse ICE arrests in NYC were documented in 2018, with Queens alone accounting for 33 arrests.
As a public defender, Cabán represented numerous undocumented people in court, and after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016, many of her clients were very scared to access justice services. “They would email me in the middle of the night, afraid to go to court.” For this reason, Cabán is committed to protecting undocumented people. “When you’re an [undocumented] victim of a crime…you’re not going to go get help, because you’re afraid that you might get deported as a result,” explains Cabán. If residents are afraid to look for help when most needed, “you’re making an already vulnerable community more vulnerable.”
Cabán wants to decriminalize poverty, tackle corporate crimes, and decarcerate and restore communities. She’s pushing for fast, transformative change rather than incremental progress, using cash bail as an example. “We can take the half measure and say that we will end cash bail for low-level, nonviolent offenses, but we’re still going to ask for cash bail for violent offenses? That’s the half measure that just does not address the problem. If you’re charged with a violent offense and you’re poor, you’re [still] going to stay locked up on Rikers Island.”
Cabán also wants to invest resources in pretrial services that give people the tools they need to change their behavior. “Any time somebody goes to jail or prison, 97 percent of the time they’re going to reenter the community [when they get out],” she says. “So what are we doing to support people to change behavior to make sure that they don’t harm again?… Who gets the chance for restorative justice? Who gets the chance to heal, so that they can live healthier lives?”
There is no doubt that the Queens DA race also reflects the growing concern for the Latinx population’s defense against a broken criminal justice system that cripples residents in the borough. With Queens leading with most weed busts in the city, black and brown residents are the most affected. In the first three months of 2018, 40 percent of those charged with fifth-degree marijuana possession were Latinx and 49 percent were African American, while only 7 percent of those charged were of white racial background.
Queens is also the only NYC borough that lacks a wrongful conviction unit. “We need to end the practice of discriminatory and abusive policing that disproportionately targets black and brown communities,” Cabán has said. “We need to end broken windows policing, hold officers accountable, and invest in communities.” Between this strong stance on improving the criminal justice system and high-profile endorsements from names like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, Cabán may be the candidate to finally change things for the better.