Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán has a big overarching goal: to get people to stop thinking about criminal justice as a punitive system. But to achieve that goal, Cabán has to start small, which means knocking on as many doors as possible to ask registered Democrats for their vote in the biggest of New York City's five boroughs, which has over 2.3 million residents.
We met up with Cabán in Ridgewood, Queens, a diverse neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. On a recent afternoon, the queer, Latinx 31-year-old was going door-to-door canvassing, alternating seamlessly between English and Spanish.
Cabán, the only public defender and the youngest of the seven candidates in the race, brings her experience growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Queens to her campaign, and her progressive platform has gained her endorsements from popular political figures like Cynthia Nixon, groups like the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America — and now, Rep. Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez. She says she wants to end the prosecution of offenses like low-level marijuana possession and fare evasion on the NYC subway, supports the No New Jails movement in NYC, and backs the push to decriminalize sex work.
Ahead of the Democratic primary on June 25, 2019, Cabán spoke with Refinery29 about her platform, criminal justice reform, and growing up in Queens.
What inspired you to run for office?
"I never thought that I would run for office or run to be a district attorney. It was the perfect storm of things — I was in court every day [as a public defender], and criminal justice reform has become a part of this larger, national conversation in a way that it hadn’t been. And seeing the way that we have been rethinking prosecution in places like Philadelphia with [Larry] Krasner and in Boston with Rachael Rollins, and recognizing that communities could rally behind the idea that we shouldn’t be thinking about [criminal justice] so much as a punitive system, but instead asking, 'How do we make sure harm doesn’t happen again?' More often than not, it’s through investing in resources in our communities and understanding that stability means public safety.
"Being on the ground in court every day, and seeing so-called progressive policies come out, and recognizing that there was an asterisk next to them, consistently, where my clients who were the exception to the rule before continued to be the exception to the rule after these policies. In Manhattan, I had a DA say we’re not going to prosecute turnstile jumps, and the next week, I picked up a turnstile jump [case] that I litigated for a year and went to trial on. And a lot of people don’t know that those things still happen."
What is the split between who is an exception to the rules and who isn’t?
"Historically, the split has always been the same. When we talk about who gets the short end of the stick, it is our Black and Brown communities, our low-income communities, our immigrant communities, our LGBTQIA+ communities. It’s folks who are formerly incarcerated who are on supervision. And what we do is, rather than say, 'Hey, our goal is public safety, and we want to keep people out of our system,' we put people in a position that pretty much ensures that they cycle right back into our system."
How has your upbringing informed your views on the criminal justice system?
"I grew up in South Richmond Hill, Queens. My parents grew up in the Woodside housing projects. My grandfather was incredibly abusive to the point where my grandmother left him, and my mom dropped out of high school to help take care of the family. I talk about him because when I got to meet him later on in life, when I was growing up — he was back in our lives — he was an incredible grandfather. I loved him to death, he played the guitar for me, he was loving and kind. When I got older, I recognized that this abusive husband and father and this really incredible grandfather, they were both so equally true. And he was somebody who could’ve been cycling in and out of our justice system, and our system was one that didn’t take into account the fact that he was a Korean War combat veteran who earned a Purple Heart for our country and came back with PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol, and where were our systems in place to support him so that he could support his family?
"When we look at individuals, we can’t just look at them — we have to look at their histories. We have to look at not just individual trauma, but generational trauma, community-wide trauma. Because my grandfather affects how I navigate the world. What was modeled for my mom was unhealthy relationships, so what did she find? Unhealthy relationships. What was modeled for me? Unhealthy relationships.
"So often, the only things that I can pinpoint that separate me from my clients — my story is not that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and became a lawyer — are luck and privilege. Oftentimes, one of the only things that I can point to is the fact that my dad got a union job, which meant that I had healthcare, access to an education, and that I got to go to therapy as an adult and have reparative experiences and learned how to engage with the world in different, more healthy ways. My clients don’t have access to those things."
What are the top issues you would prioritize as DA?
"Right now, the metrics are how many convictions can you get, how many people can you put in jail, what lengths of sentences you can get, and it incentivizes going after low-hanging fruit. We should be switching the metrics to saying that you’re doing your job [well] if you show that you are reducing recidivism, decarcerating our jails, and keeping people rooted in their communities with access to services and support, and applying it all fairly across racial and class lines. On day one, we would do an audit of the entire system. And then from there, make a commitment to say that we’re not going to criminalize poverty, mental health issues, substance use disorder, and that we are going to use our resources to provide support and stabilizing services.
"I am also committed to ending cash bail. Right now, we have passed bail reform, but only for nonviolent misdemeanors. If you’re charged with a violent crime, the poor will stay incarcerated throughout the duration of their case pre-trial, before being proven guilty of anything, but a rich person can buy their constitutional presumption of innocence. And that’s just inherently unfair. And, I want discovery reform — making sure we’re handing over discovery right away in cases, that we’re not engaging in gamesmanship."
What prompted you to take interest in sex work decriminalization and migrant sex workers’ issues?
"Our justice system has historically oppressed and marginalized certain groups. And when we talk to our sex worker community — here in Queens, in Jackson Heights, we have a large contingent of trans Latina sex workers, and in Flushing, we have our migrant massage parlor workers — cycling them into our justice system just further destabilizes lives. When you talk about adding criminal convictions to that, creating extra barriers to your ability to support yourself, the fact is that our economy doesn’t work for everybody, and there are folks who do sex work because of discrimination that they experience in areas of housing, employment, and healthcare access. If we’re going to keep people safe, we can’t drive the behavior underground. What we do by decriminalizing and destigmatizing is creating a space for people who are survivors or victims of crimes to be able to get help, whether it’s access to healthcare or access to law enforcement support."
What are your thoughts on the calls for justice for Yang Song, the Flushing massage parlor worker who died during an NYPD vice sting operation? Do you think there was impropriety or misguided steps taken by the NYPD?
"I can say this generally about police investigations: When you are looking at what happened, and you talk to any of the witnesses — coworkers and family members sharing stories of police misconduct or other experiences — then it is the responsibility of our district attorney’s offices to open independent investigations to find out whether there was police misconduct or not and hold them accountable when there is. We have to protect our communities."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just endorsed you, saying that electing you could be "transformative." What does that mean for your campaign?
"I think it just speaks to the strength of our grassroots organizing, in terms of showing the strength of the amount of people that we’ve mobilized around our policy positions, around our values. For me, it was really cool, because as a working-class Latina myself, I never thought I’d be in a position to have the ability to run for office. And [AOC] is an example of saying that these are spaces that we can enter — and we can win."