Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán is fighting to fix New York City's prison system
Back in 2018, three Latina women — Jessica Ramos, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Julia Salazar — all won tight races in New York against more established opponents. Meanwhile, across the country, a total of 42 women of color, including representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, and Ayanna Pressley, won seats in the 2018 midterm elections. In 2019, the number of women running for public office continues to rise, and includes Tiffany Cabán, a queer Latina woman and former public defender who's running against six others to become Queens' next district attorney.
“The women who have run, whether they lost or won... they certainly pushed the conversation and emboldened others to do the same, so that more of us win," Cabán told Mic during a recent phone conversation.
If Cabán, 31, is elected Queens' next district attorney on June 25, she’ll be the first woman ever elected to the position. And while her identity as a queer woman of color undoubtedly influences her worldview and has been referenced throughout her campaign, it's not the basis of her platform. Cabán, a public defender who has represented hundreds of people who have been the victims of over-policing and over-sentencing, is focused on radical criminal justice reform.
"This is not about good people and bad people and locking up the bad people, but just about people, and how we can help people heal, and not harm, and engage in better behavior," Cabán explains. "We should be investing in our communities and in human beings, and trying to keep people out of our system."
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the incarceration rate in New York is higher than in Canada, France, Italy, and Belgium combined. People of color account for most of the incarcerated, with Black people making up nearly half of those numbers. In March, the New York Daily News reported that Queens had the highest number of lockups for minor infractions than any other New York City borough.
With those stats in mind, Cabán is touting an extensive, progressive platform that flips the role of prosecutor from punisher to community liaison. Rather than focusing on punitive responses, Cabán — who describes her approach as decarceral, meaning she actively opposes jailing people as a response to crime — says she wants to focus on finding restorative solutions and providing more resources for communities disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. "It's long overdue to start looking at our DA's office," she explains. "The role is not to punish for the sake of punishing."
As Queens' district attorney, she plans to dismantle mass incarceration by prosecuting fewer crimes, advocating for shorter sentences, legalizing marijuana, and decriminalizing sex work. Currently, New York is taking steps toward reforming its criminal justice system, including a move to end cash bail and close Rikers Island. Yet, as Cabán is all too aware, there are still frequent, tragic examples of the inadequacies of the current system.
In June, a trans woman named Layleen Cubilette-Polanco, arrested on misdemeanor charges, died at Rikers after not being able to afford $500 bail. Following the news of Polanco's death, Cabán posted to Twitter about the systemic issues that led to the woman being held at the infamous jail in the first place.
"To public defenders, her story is all too familiar — our clients deserve stabilizing services, not further destabilization and criminalization at the hands of our criminal justice system," Cabán wrote. "We need reform that puts clients’ trauma and community support first. Nothing less."
Cabán's deep-set desire to change New York's prison and rehabilitation systems wasn't only inspired by her work as a public defender. As a child, she watched her grandfather return home to Queens from the Korean War behaving far differently than before he had left; he was suffering from PTSD.
"The man that I got to know [as a child] was just incredibly patient and kind and I loved him so much," Cabán says. But when he returned from the war, he battled with alcoholism and was physically abusive towards her grandmother. Seeing the lack of systems and resources in place to help people like her grandfather influenced Cabán's career and ultimately shaped her platform.
"Stability equals public safety," she explains now. "And when you recognize that when people know where they're going to lay their head down at night, when they have access to health care, education, and job opportunities, it is the best way to reduce crime and improve public safety."
The role of a district attorney, she continues, should "focus on public safety — and if it's public safety, then it makes all the sense in the world to start addressing the root causes of crime."
That might be easier said than done. Cabán is running in a crowded primary, facing contenders including Queens borough president Melinda Katz, who have received the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Other candidates have extensive histories working as prosecutors and judges; Cabán is the only public defender running for the seat. Her campaign also doesn't accept corporate donations, which puts her well behind her competitors' spending capabilities. On May 28, The Queens Eagle reported that Katz's campaign had $907,000 at its disposal, while Cabán had just over $150,000 to spend (although her funding has doubled in the last three weeks, according to NY1).
Despite these challenges, a win certainly isn't out of the question. Just look at Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia defense attorney who spent the early years of his career suing the police for brutality, and later represented groups like Black Lives Matter pro bono. Despite his city's notoriously high incarceration rate, Krasner entered the 2017 race for district attorney campaigning on ending mass incarceration — and won.
That was two years ago; today, Krasner is one of several people nationwide who have taken office with similarly progressive campaigns, so Cabán is in good company. And she's already received some high-profile endorsements, including from Krasner himself. Akeem Browder, the activist brother of Kalief Browder, whose 2015 death after three years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island catalyzed a nationwide conversation about the justice system, has also endorsed Cabán. So have presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Ocasio-Cortez. The endorsement from the fellow Puerto Rican representative carries a personal significance for Cabán; she says, adding that Ocasio-Cortez's support was "humbling and exciting."
The high-level endorsements have given Cabán serious exposure, a necessity for a campaign that runs on grassroots organizing, no corporate funding, and volunteers. "In a borough of almost two and a half million people, the difference maker with whether we win or not is: Do we get in front of enough voters?" Cabán said.
She has also been endorsed by criminal justice reform advocate and exonerated Central Park Five member Yusef Salaam. Salaam delivered his endorsement in June, while Cabán was calling for the resignation of Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor responsible for Salaam's incarceration. Cabán points to the Central Park Five case as an example of the grave injustice she hopes, as district attorney, to prevent from ever happening again.
"When we think about the Central Park Five exonerees, we're talking about survivors of state sanctioned violence, pure and simple," she says. "The things that they went through, that their families went through — it's irreparable harm. We need to be holding people accountable for that, and ADA Linda Fairstein is just the perfect example."
By using the district attorney position to dismantle decades of racial and class violence administered by New York's justice system, Cabán wants to set an example for the rest of the country. "This isn't just about New York City," she explains. "This is part of a national movement to reform our justice system. I see a lot of opportunity to really push and challenge our district attorneys to start moving in the direction that we need to be moving."
If Cabán does win the race, she'll get to work alongside Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez, who unveiled a prison reform plan in March that includes measures like exploring non-jail resolutions in cases, implementing early release programs for most parolees, and collaborating with neighborhood leaders and community-based organizations. If Cabán wins in Queens, two of the city's boroughs will possibly become real beacons of criminal justice reform.
And while the district attorney is not a widely-known position — the races aren't typically covered widely in the press, and Cabán says she's met many people who didn't even know they could vote — the candidate wants voters to know that the "district attorney is the most important local elected official that you can vote for, period, wherever you are," because of the impact it can have on social justice.
"Our system obviously is one that has been built on racism and classism," she says. For years, she adds, "we have measured success through numbers of convictions, length of sentences, how many people we can throw in jail. And that culture of convictions at all costs has not made us safe. All it's done is perpetuate the mass incarceration of our black and brown, our low income, our immigrant, our LGBTQIA plus communities."
But with Cabán in charge, people in those communities can know they have someone on their side working hard to change that reality.