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Tiffany Cabán's shock win shows why local District Attorney races are critical to criminal justice reform

Tiffany Cabán's shock win shows why local District Attorney races are critical to criminal justice reform
Image: Tiffany L. Caban

On June 25, attorney Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old queer, progressive woman of color, stunned the New York political establishment by winning the Democratic nomination for District Attorney of Queens. With the backing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who herself rose to prominence in a stunning primary upset last year, she defeated borough president Melinda Katz, the establishment's pick in the race. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who runs politics in Queens, has said that the party will accept the will of the people and rally around Cabán.

It would be easy for a local election like this to fly under the radar, but much like state house elections, district attorney races can be crucially important for the advancement of criminal justice reform and other progressive causes.

To begin with, DAs hold an enormous amount of responsibility. Many of them serve as prosecutors for huge populations — the borough of Queens alone has more residents than 15 U.S. states, which would arguably make Cabán as powerful as some state attorneys general. Furthermore, charging people with crimes is a much more subjective process than many people realize. By one estimate, the average person commits three felonies a day, and prosecutors obviously can’t and shouldn’t lock up every single person in America. So DA offices decide everything from who gets charged with crimes, to what sort of crimes are prioritized, to what deals defendants are offered, to the type of due process that suspects face.

It isn’t difficult to look at an office that has this much discretion and realize the huge potential for individual DAs to advance — or block — criminal justice reform.

Horror stories abound of local DAs using their power in corrupt and retrogressive ways. To begin with, many local prosecutors have sought to protect their amicable relationship with police departments by deliberately sabotaging investigations into police brutality and shootings of unarmed black men, as most famously happened in Ferguson, Missouri. DAs can also exacerbate the worst excesses of the criminal justice system — in Philadelphia between 1993 and 2018, the DA’s office seized nearly 1,700 homes by civil asset forfeiture and sold them off to speculators and police officers, and in Virginia, commonwealth attorneys have relied so aggressively on cash bail that 46 percent of people in Virginia jails haven’t been convicted of any crime.

And all of that only scratches the surface. Local prosecutors have fueled the drug war and mass incarceration, committed misconduct to wrongly convict people and boost their numbers, locked up rape survivors for being too scared to discuss their assaults, and in a high-profile recent case in Alabama, charged a pregnant woman with manslaughter for being shot in the stomach.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The nomination of Cabán was just the latest chapter of a nationwide sea change against the “tough on crime” era — and many of the stories above have begun to take a turn for the better.

In August, Bob McCulloch, the Missouri prosecutor at the heart of the Ferguson conflict, was defeated in his primary. In Philadelphia, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner took over the DA office last year, and not only has he moved to reform civil forfeiture, he has been reducing and downgrading excessive sentencing. And in Virginia, prosecutors in Arlington and Fairfax Counties were ousted in primaries by progressives who pledged to end mass incarceration.

And the election of progressive prosecutors may not just alter local politics but national politics as well. In April, prosecutors from Massachusetts sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stop them from making surprise raids at courthouses, a tactic that has come under scrutiny as President Donald Trump has aggressively sought to grease the deportation machine.

Just as bad prosecutors can ruin the justice system, good prosecutors can advance it. And because DAs are elected around most of the country, these races are an immediate way for progressive activists to advance their cause.

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