If the New York borough of Queens were a city in its own right, it would be one of the most diverse in the nation. With a population of over 2.4 million, it is home to the largest naturalized immigrant community in the United States.
Its justice system, not surprisingly, faces a big-city crisis.
In 2018, the New York Division of Criminal Justice recorded 2,331,358 crimes in the borough, which works out to almost one crime per resident. The same year, nearly half of the 40,893 Queens residents arrested on misdemeanor charges were convicted and sentenced.
For some Queens residents, the stark statistics have raised a pressing question: Who’s holding the prosecutors accountable for such an excessively high level of arrests?
“Queens has been impacted disproportionately and has been the most marginalized by the system,” says Jon McFarlane, a lifelong Queens resident. “The Queens County criminal court prosecutes more individuals for misdemeanors than any other borough. We have to change that.”
Which is what McFarlane and other concerned Queens residents plan to do.
McFarlane is one of the leaders of a group planning an ambitious effort to engage citizen volunteers to monitor the Queens District Attorney’s office. The effort builds on existing efforts in New York City to keep track of courts through observing and taking notes on arraignments, led by Court Watch NYC.
“We’re trying to address the crisis of using policing, criminalization, and incarceration to address what are fundamentally issues of public health and economic justice,” Nina Luo, Court Watch Coordinator, told The Crime Report.
“We want to run a DA accountability campaign as we would run an accountability campaign targeting any elected official.”
Organizers say that while they are focusing on the actions of individual prosecutors, their ultimate aim is to put pressure on the system in its entirety.
“This is an institutional battle, which is why accountability is so important. It is in their [DA’s] mandate to prosecute. That’s literally their job. We have to be prepared to be disappointed by whoever is elected because that’s the nature of the structure,” Luo said.
A DA Election Heats Up New York’s Summer
The “disappointment” index ratcheted up this summer in the wake of the tightly fought battle to fill the seat left vacant by the death of the sitting Queens DA Richard Brown, a veteran Democrat who had held the seat since 1991.
The race, which attracted national headlines, pitted “progressive” candidate Tiffany Cabán, a 32-year-old public defender and self-described “democratic socialist” who ran on a platform to end mass incarceration, against Melinda Katz, the Queens Borough president with close ties to the borough’s Democratic Party organization.
Although initial returns declared Cabán the winner, a subsequent recount determined that she lost to Katz by only 55 votes.
But even a victory by Cabán, who received support from national figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as another symbol of the surging reform movement among Democrats across the country, would not have impeded the momentum for greater justice accountability by the Queens DA.
“The big issue is that the DA’s offices are notoriously non-transparent; people don’t really know what happens in them,” Rory Fleming, a Minnesota attorney who is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for prosecutors, told The Crime Report
“They’ve been called ‘black boxes,’ in the sense that how prosecutors make decisions on how to handle cases is a total mystery to the public,” added Fleming, who has worked on over ten DA campaigns around the country.
“I think Katz will be surprised by how much people want to—and will—hold her accountable.”
In a prepared statement provided to The Crime Report, Melinda Katz said she welcomed the group.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” said Katz, who is expected to win handily over her Republican opponent Daniel Kogan in the general elections this fall. “The more people are engaged and participating, the better.”
She added that Court Watch’s agenda fits her own objectives of reforming the Queens justice system, and building “momentum for initiatives to eliminate cash bail, expand alternatives to incarceration and end marijuana prosecutions.”
The Queens DA monitoring effort, a project of VOCAL-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and 5 Boro Defenders, is an outgrowth of a 19-member coalition, Queens for DA Accountability, initially formed in 2018.
“This movement has been in the works for a long time,” said Rachel Foran, of Court Watch NYC and the Community Justice Exchange. “We need to shift narratives and language and build the power to make demands before we actually make them.”
Building a Base
The plan is to develop a campaign that will begin with building out a base that will educate and engage both the public and legislators, followed by identifying goals and demands that will be implemented through a series of tactics ranging from demonstrations to court support and pamphleting.
Ultimately, the tactics employed will be informed by Katz’s decisions and those of the Queens community.
These actions will not be limited to Queens, either. Although New York’s justice system has produced some of the country’s most noteworthy reforms, observers say it could do a lot better.
When Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez was elected in 2017 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Ken Thompson, he vowed to expand the reforms begun by his predecessor.
“We’re going to make sure we lead the most progressive D.A.’s office in the country,” he said.
But Gonzalez has not stood by all of his promises. For example, Court Watch and investigative journalists report that prosecutors in Brooklyn continue to prosecute misdemeanors and request money bail for non-felony crimes, even though his campaign platform promised to end both of those practices.
The DA-Watch group plans to expand to Manhattan and Brooklyn later this fall, but for now, Queens is their focus.
The previous Queens DA, Richard Brown, was criticized for his tough-on-crime approach. Fare evasion, loitering, and shoplifting continue to be charged in Queens Criminal Court at high rates.
“(The system) currently coerces individuals to plead guilty prior to arraignment in most cases,” said McFarlane. “Instead of throwing many unlawful stop and frisk cases out, Queens Assistant District Attorneys will overcharge in an attempt to lure defendants into plea deals they otherwise would reject.”
The Queens effort is not the first of its kind. Similar models have been used in Chicago and Boston. But, Court Watch volunteers said, although these types of campaigns have worked elsewhere, there is no formulaic way to run one; it all depends on the needs of the community.
“Public transparency is a critical part of modern prosecutors’ offices,” observed Lucy Lang, Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “At the same time, personal attacks or shaming of line-level prosecutors can prove destructive to the long-term goals of criminal legal reform.
“The best policy outcomes result from collaboration between advocates and system actors in furtherance of their shared goals, and transparency and communication are amongst the most powerful tools in furtherance of reform.”
Even members of the system agree.
One participant of the group who works at the Rikers Island detention facility, commuting there from her home in Queens, says her first-hand experience has made her “see how people’s lives are damaged by decisions made in court.”
“I have to remain neutral in my job,” said the woman, who requested anonymity because of her city job.
“So I am excited to be part of a group that holds DAs accountable for the immense power they have.”
Olivia Heffernan is a freelance journalist covering labor organizing, immigration reform, and prison abolition. Visit her website: www.oliviaheffernan.com