Borough President Melinda Katz was triumphant in the tightly contested Democratic primary for district attorney over Tiffany Cabán, in an election that concluded more than five weeks after voting.
Katz, in a sitdown interview with the Chronicle editorial board last Thursday, noted that most of the candidates in the seven-person field for the Democratic primary agreed that there should be justice reform.
“The difference would be I would prosecute some crimes,” she said.
On Nov. 5, voters will choose between Katz and Joe Murray, the cop-turned-attorney Republican candidate.
A large part of her campaign is that she already knows Queens communities because of her current role and that a newcomer wouldn’t have the same kind of trust earned in the area.
Will she have the trust of some areas she didn’t win in the primary?
“I think that the communities most impacted by the inequality and injustice of the criminal justice [system] are the ones who are my largest supporters because they know that I actually want equity in the system,” Katz said.
If she’s triumphant in November, Katz said, she will try to find justice for victims and defendants, while keeping communities safe.
“I think you can do it all,” she said.
As candidates in the primary spoke about reforming the system, Katz said the question became which crimes would candidates prosecute, because that’s the DA’s role.
But she said a prosecutor’s job is “first and foremost trying to lower the crime rate.”
Katz spoke about working with partnerships for crime prevention.
“I truly believe the best way to lower crime is to make sure that we keep guns out of people’s hands as opposed to getting them caught up in the system and figuring out how to punish,” she said.
In April, the state Legislature eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses, with the laws going into effect in January 2020.
Katz believes a “lot of issues” will be taken care of by the new bail laws.
“I still fully believe bail is meant to be a punishment for the poor,” she said.
She said she’s interested to see how the laws will be implemented as a DA on Jan. 1.
Katz spoke of certain priorities she will pursue if elected. For one, she would send an investigator to every workplace accident site to investigate. And she would start recruiting for a conviction integrity unit.
The DA Office’s current regime, largely selected by the late Richard Brown, the Queens DA from 1991 through 2019, is seemingly on the way out, she said.
“I think that there will be a wholesale change in the leadership,” Katz said.
She said she has respect for Brown and knew him since she was a kid but that “things change.”
“You usually want your own people at the top leadership positions,” she said.
An issue Katz has been questioned about in both her capacity as borough president and as a candidate for district attorney is Mayor de Blasio’s plan to replace the Rikers Island complex with four borough-based jails. One would be at 126-02 82 Ave. by the Queens Criminal Courthouse, where the old House of Detention stands. The new 1,150-bed facility is planned to hold all of the city’s female inmates as well as males from Queens.
In September, the City Planning Commission voted 9-3 in favor of the plan.
Katz is for closing Rikers Island — she noted the value of detainees being close to home — but voted against the Queens jail, citing the large size and lack of community input.
“It made no sense to me,” she said, explaining that the jail would have space for far more detainees than it is expected to hold. “The math didn’t add up.”
Katz added that it didn’t make sense to knock down the municipal parking lot that was recently constructed at the site.
She believes the new bail laws should take effect before buildings are knocked down.
“The problem, I think, with the way that this has gone is that everybody thinks, ‘There’s an easy answer. We’ll just knock down Rikers and put it up somewhere else.’ That’s not the issue with Rikers,” Katz said.
She said the issues are that the complex is too large, too unyielding and prone to a lot of violence.
Katz visited Rikers a few weeks ago, her first trip in about 25 years. She spoke to a dozen men individually and they told her how they want to get out, go to schools and tell students that there’s a better path than crime.
But, she said, nobody is coming out of Rikers better than when they went in.
“Why not? Why aren’t we giving the resources to people that are in there to come out better? I think you can do both,” Katz said. “They’re not preclusive of each other.”
According to Katz, many of the inmates at Rikers are either awaiting trial because they couldn’t pay bail, were sentenced to less than a year for a crime or haven’t been indicted yet.
“I’d like to think almost anyone’s reformable that’s in there,” she said.
While she is no fan of Rikers, Katz couldn’t vote for the borough-based jails, saying the mayor’s plan amounts to replacing one large, bad institution with four bad ones “without any other answers.”