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Advocates Say Queens Needs A Progressive DA To Root Out 'Deeply-Rooted Moral Corruption'

The crowd at Monday's protest
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The crowd at Monday's protest Ross Barkan / Gothamist

A new coalition of progressive organizations assembled on Monday to demand sweeping reforms at the Queens District Attorney’s office, where the longtime prosecutor announced earlier this month he was stepping down after nearly 30 years in power.

Queens for DA Accountability, made up of a wide array of criminal justice and immigrant’s rights groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, Make the Road New York, Vocal-NY, Court Watch NYC, and JustLeadership USA, took direct aim at Richard Brown, the outgoing Queens DA, calling him out as a “tragic example of the deeply-rooted moral corruption of our criminal justice system.”

“Brown wants to keep Rikers open, requests absurdly high bail, and fails to hold people accountable for their brutality,” said Clarise McCants, the criminal justice campaign director at Color of Change. “He comes from the tough-on-crime era wherein prosecutors and police exploit racism and inequality to extract guilt from innocent people.”

Among left-leaning critics of the criminal justice system, Brown’s office is held in particularly low regard. Long in failing health, Brown, now 86 years old, has run virtually unopposed since he was appointed DA in 1991 to fill the vacancy of John Santucci.

The new coalition, which gathered in bone-chilling cold outside Queens Criminal Court, is not supporting any single candidate to replace Brown. Rather, they are laying out a series of lengthy reforms they hope the new district attorney takes up next year or Brown somehow responds to before he leaves office.

Demands include an independent unit to prosecute police for misconduct and brutality cases; automatic discovery and speedy trials; requiring prosecutors to write sentencing memos explaining how they justify the costs of incarcerating a defendant; an end to the prosecution of marijuana possession and other quality-of-life offenses; keeping ICE out of courthouses; creating a unit to review wrongful convictions; and an end to the practice of employing prosecutors with family ties to judges in Queens.

“With all due respect, we believe that the Queens District Attorney's Office is one of the best in the state,” a spokesperson for Brown said in response.

Brown’s office, still largely controlled by a cadre of assistant district attorneys close to the Queens Democratic machine, has actively resisted not just calls for the more ambitious changes coming out of the national criminal justice reform movement but even the less controversial policy overhauls adopted by counterparts in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Brown is against the legalization of marijuana and continues to prosecute low-level cases, unlike the Brooklyn DA’s office. Queens aggressively prosecutes fare evasion, which the Manhattan DA, Cy Vance, refuses to do. Brown has argued, against the recommendations of a commission headed by New York’s former chief judge, that the Rikers Island jail complex should not be closed.

Historically, the Queens DA’s office has shown deference to the NYPD, failing to aggressively pursue police brutality cases. Critics partially blamed Brown, who was called upon to recuse himself in favor of a special prosecutor, for the acquittal of three detectives in the shooting of Sean Bell, an unarmed black man.

Queens prosecutors are unusually punitive, employing tactics unseen in other city offices, according to defense attorneys who regularly come into contact with the Queens DA’s office. Assistant district attorneys will join police to interview defendants before they are even arraigned, hoping to secure incriminating statements that will lead to quick convictions, according to a leading Queens criminal defense attorney who declined to speak on the record.

Brown’s office, according to attorneys and advocates, is also notorious for the way prosecutors will pressure defendants to waive their statutory right to a speedy trial. Defendants are often told that if they choose not to waive this right, the district attorney will refuse to negotiate off the highest count possible if an indictment is brought. Plea bargaining happens on Brown’s terms.

“Queens is so far behind the curve that it almost defies description,” said Steven Zeidman, the director of the criminal defense clinic at CUNY School of Law. “Look at it this way—we can debate about things going on in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, we can argue over policies and words, but I don’t think anybody would name an initiative from Queens in the last three decades someone could call progressive. It’s usually all about harsher prosecution.”

Like another Queens power broker of yore, Joe Crowley, Brown ascended to his post without competition and maintained it through the bonds he forged with the Democratic political establishment of Queens.

There will be no Ocasio-Cortez moment for Brown, who saw the writing on the wall and announced several weeks ago that he was not seeking re-election. Many of his potential successors, to the quiet frustration of advocates, all once boasted close ties to Crowley.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Rory Lancman have each amassed million dollar war chests for a primary likely to be decided six months from now, while former Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak has almost $700,000 in the bank. Several other contenders, including Judge George Grasso, who supervises Bronx Criminal Court, and Mina Malik, a former prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn, are eyeing the post as well.

Katz and Lancman have both spoken about reforming the office, with Lancman positioning himself as the more liberal candidate, drawing some comparisons to Larry Krasner, the crusading Philadelphia DA who scored national headlines for his radical reorientation of the prosecutorial role.

But Katz and Lancman are both Queens political creatures who, despite their overtures, have not attracted overwhelming support from the criminal justice reform community. Katz was elected Queens borough president with the strong support of Crowley and was briefly heckled at her campaign kickoff for her support of the deal to bring an Amazon headquarters to Queens.

After running an insurgent campaign for Congress, Lancman evolved into an indefatigable defender of the Queens Democratic Party, which has kept a stranglehold on the borough’s sprawling criminal justice system. His wife, with Crowley’s blessing, was elected a civil court judge. And his ongoing war of words with Linda Sarsour, a prominent leftist political activist, has not endeared himself to many of the reformers who otherwise agree with the stances he has taken against cash bail and police misconduct.

Brown’s retirement, in part, is a testament to Crowley’s defeat. Katz, Lancman, and Lasak all launched their campaigns months before Brown publicly declared he was not seeking re-election, a lack of deference that would have been unthinkable had Crowley still been one of the most powerful men in Congress.

Remarkably enough, in June Queens will witness the first competitive Democratic primary for district attorney in more than a half century, if not longer. The two prior district attorneys, Santucci and Nicholas Ferrero, were also either appointed to fill the post or designated the Democratic candidate without a primary.

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