After months of strongly hinting that he was interested in the position, Queens councilmember Rory Lancman has announced this morning that he is running for Queens District Attorney. Lancman, who represents neighborhoods in central and eastern Queens, and chairs the Council’s Justice System committee, said that as DA, he would stop prosecuting low-level offenses, launch a wrongful conviction unit, and no longer ask for cash bail.
“Our district attorney’s office has refused to decline to prosecute low-level, non-violent, victimless offenses like marijuana possession and fare evasion,” Lancman, 49, said in an interview on Tuesday. “Hundreds of thousands of people a year, thousands in Queens, are funneled into the criminal justice system, given criminal records that saddle them for the rest of their lives, and make it hard to go to school, get a job. That’s what’s called the ‘New Jim Crow.’ Tearing that down starts at the Queens DA office, by refusing to prosecute those offenses.”
The incumbent, Richard Brown, has not faced an opponent since his election in 1991, when his Democratic rival was kicked off the ballot after the county machine challenged his petition signatures. Brown, 85, is the longest-serving District Attorney in New York City. He has yet to announce if he’ll be running for reelection next fall.
While every other borough has instituted a conviction review unit, Brown has refused, saying that prosecutors are capable of reviewing their own cases without the need to create a separate unit. During the first six months of this year, Queens has put more people into jail on misdemeanor charges than any other borough.
“The DA’s office in Queens is sort of like the land that time forgot,” Lancman said. “Brooklyn was electing Ken Thompson, and Staten Island is asking for funding to start a wrongful conviction review unit, and Manhattan is declining to prosecute fair evasion offenses, and Darcel Clark in the Bronx is trying to build out open-file discovery machinery, and Queens just keeps stubbornly clinging to an outdated model of criminal justice.”
In a statement, Brown said, "My present term does not expire until December 2019 and I will make no decision about the future until sometime next year." His office did not comment on Lancman's description of Brown's tenure.
Lancman has long been an outspoken critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policy of “quality-of-life” policing, calling the NYPD’s focus on low-level offenses like turnstile jumping and marijuana possession “unfair” for how it disproportionately impacts New Yorkers of color.
These types of low-level prosecutions, like misdemeanor drug possession, theft of services, or trespassing, represent nearly 40 percent of prosecutions that resulted in pre-trial detention in the borough during the first half of this year. And they have consistently placed the borough’s immigrant population in harm’s way, by making non-citizens vulnerable to deportation for non-violent offenses that often aren’t charged elsewhere in the country (or city).
“My idea of justice is every man or woman stands before the bench judged on their individual culpability and individual circumstances,” Lancman said. “If the thing that I did will get me a misdemeanor and requirement to participate in a program, but the next person, who is not a citizen will get deported, I think it’s fair to charge that other person a different way so that they’ll have the same culpability that I have, but they won’t end up getting kicked out of the country.”
Earlier this month, Lancman debated Queens Assistant District Attorney James Quinn about the possible closure of Rikers Island. Lancman, who is in favor of replacing Rikers Island with four smaller jails located in every borough besides Staten Island, has said that the Queens DA’s insistence on asking for cash bail, as well as its charging of low-level offenses, has kept Rikers Island filled with New Yorkers and derailed thousands of lives.
Quinn, in defending Rikers, drew condemnation for arguing that Kalief Browder, the Bronx teen who spent three years on Rikers (with significant parts of that time spent in solitary confinement) only to have his charges dismissed, had killed himself long after his release from Rikers, not during his confinement.
“I do not know what satisfaction you get by the potential fact that he killed himself two years after he was in Rikers Island,” Lancman said at the debate in response. “And not in Rikers Island itself.”
In a video announcing his candidacy, Lancman is endorsed by Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner. Lancman has also been endorsed by Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by NYPD officers in Queens in 2006. DA Brown failed to win any guilty verdicts against the officers involved.
As next year's election draws closer, the race is likely to become more crowded, but Lancman told Gothamist that he will be the most progressive candidate — ”I guarantee it.” Other possible candidates include former Queens Supreme Court Justice Gregory Lasak, who recently retired ahead of a possible run, current borough president Melinda Katz, who is term-limited in 2021, and Judge George Grasso, who currently heads the Bronx Criminal Court.
But Lancman is not immune to criticism from the left. In 2015, he voted in favor of a city budget that added close to 1,300 police officers to the NYPD, which many felt only exacerbated tensions between the city and communities that have been the target of disproportionate policing.
“The police can only police what prosecutors are willing to prosecute,” Lancman replied when asked about how prosecutors can impact how communities are targeted by police officers.
“You look at how fare evasion arrests plummeted in Manhattan as a result of Cy Vance saying, ‘We’re not going to prosecute fare evasion cases.’ I think you’re going to see the same impact on the qualified decisions in Manhattan and Brooklyn to not prosecute marijuana cases.”
Lancman’s support of the Rikers replacement plan could also place him in conflict with many of the groups that led the movement for closing Rikers, who believe that more jails will do little to end the burden placed on low-income communities of color by the city’s criminal justice system.
Lancman counters that “if we elect the right people, then we don’t need to fear that these smaller jails will then become the benchmark for how many people we need to incarcerate each year.”
Lancman, the first official entrant into the race, says he will spend the next year talking to voters about the role of the District Attorney’s office ahead of the likely extremely low-turnout September 2019 primary, where the DA’s race might be the only issue on the ballot. Since 1977, the borough’s District Attorneys have been first appointed by the governor during a vacancy, and have faced no significant challenges when facing their first election and subsequent ones.
“This will be the first actual District Attorney’s race in Queens in our lifetime,” Lancman said.