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Tiffany Cabán Knows Who the Bad Guys Are

Tiffany Cabán

Tiffany Cabán is running for Queens district attorney on a simple message: stop incarcerating poor people. Start holding landlords and bosses accountable for their crimes.

Tiffany Cabán. Image via cabanforqueens.com

Interview by
Ella Mahony

Yesterday, headlines broke that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had endorsed Tiffany Cabán for the Queens County district attorney race. If Cabán wins, the nearly two and a half million residents of Queens will be able to claim not just one, but two democratic socialist politicians of national significance.

Cabán is also joining a class of socialist and progressive activists running not for traditional political office, but for positions in the United States’ criminal justice system, hoping to transform it from within.

This of course includes Larry Krasner, the former civil rights lawyer who sued the police seventy-five times before running for Philadelphia DA. Seven months after he took office, Philadelphia’s jail population decreased by 21 percent. But the role — the ACLU has called district attorneys “the most powerful people in the criminal justice system” — has also landed Krasner in positions that put him at odds with movement activists, like when his office initially opposed Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal, before eventually letting it go forward.

It also includes Franklin Bynum, also endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, who now sits on the Harris County Criminal Court in Houston; and Chesa Boudin, who’s running for San Francisco district attorney, among others.

There are many risks to engaging in these races — district attorney offices, in particular, can put activists in the position of prosecuting cases they once protested against. But these campaigns are also generating serious antiracist mobilization; and acting as something of a policy shop for the socialist movement, churning out concrete demands for breaking down the most brutal aspects of the criminal justice system. In big cities like New York, police unions and the court system have historically served as a powerful counterweight to even mild liberal agendas. Hopefully, campaigns like Cabán’s can also build up the Left’s capacity to confront the institutional power police hold in our cities.

Krasner has characterized himself as “a public defender with power.” That’s exactly what Cabán, the only public defender in a seven-candidate race, intends to be. Here, Jacobin associate editor Ella Mahony spoke with Cabán about bringing a public defender’s vision to the Queens DA office; why we should be prosecuting abusive landlords and bosses who steal wages; how public health issues have been shunted onto the criminal justice system; and what the socialist message about community safety should be.


EM

First, what is the role of a DA? Why does it matter to have a left-wing person in that position?

TC

We’re at a time where people are open to redefining what the role of the DA is, because historically it has served a function to punish the poor. It’s been one that has disproportionately criminalized our black and brown and working-class immigrant communities. There is an incredible opportunity for harm reduction by bringing in somebody with more leftist analysis, saying “Hey this isn’t about convictions and sentences, this is about public safety, this is about fairness.” There’s some potential to shape the office, so that it really is a driver for protecting the very folks that have been disproportionately, negatively impacted by our system. It can be, when you have an independent, progressive person at the forefront, a vehicle for holding bad actors accountable who are profiting off of others’ disenfranchisement.

EM

I’d like to hear about the district a little bit. Queens is stereotyped as the suburban backyard of New York, but actually has almost double the population of Philadelphia, which is where Larry Krasner won as a progressive DA. What would it mean for you to win in Queens?

TC

If Queens were a city it would be the fourth-largest city in our country. Queens is massive, we have almost 2.5 million residents. When DA Krasner accomplished what he did in Philadelphia, it really pushed the Overton window. This is the opportunity to do something on the same scale here in Queens and be a model for what can take place throughout the country. If we can do it here, it most certainly can be done anywhere.

EM

You stand out as the only candidate with a background as a public defender. Why does that matter, what are the experiences you’ve had in the courtroom that would differently inform how you would behave as DA?

TC

It’s not just my career as a public defender but what brought me to my career as a public defender. I am a queer Latina from a low-income community. I grew up in South Richmond Hill, Queens and my parents grew up in Woodside housing projects. We’re talking about communities that have been historically over-policed, over-criminalized, but also resource-starved. When we talk about the injustices done by our system, it’s not just people who are accused of crimes, it’s survivors and victims as well. It is a situation of certain folks not having access to the same resources and protections as other folks.

My story wasn’t one that I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and got to be a lawyer and got to do all these great things. Really there’s not much that separates me from my clients. What separates me — the only thing that I can point to besides chance and luck — is the fact that my dad got a union gig out of high school. That was game-changing in terms of my access to an education, to health care, to therapy so that I could have reparative experiences around my own trauma that then could lead to a lot of different things like criminal justice system involvement.

It’s important to have somebody with that background. Who recognizes that a lot of times, what drives crime or unsafe conditions is instability in people’s lives. Stability, in things like housing, health care, education, equals public safety. These are things that we all should have a right to access.

We should bring that perspective into our district attorney’s office and say “Hey, if what we’re supposed to do here is promote public safety, then we should be investing resources in the communities that have suffered because of other people benefiting at their expense.”

EM

We’ll talk about all of the things that you’re promising not to do as DA — promising not to prosecute low-level offenses for instance. But you’ve also promised to prosecute bad landlords and construction bosses that have deaths on their sites. How did you choose what crimes you really do want to prosecute? And what would it mean for the people in your district?

TC

It goes back to this idea that we have taken public health issues and punted them to a criminal justice system. What we should be doing instead is going to the root causes of the instability. You can tie it back to the bad actors who are destabilizing entire communities that then drive crime, whether it is low-level quality of life crime or violent crime. It’s all connected.

As a public defender I represent clients who the system criminalizes for their substance use disorder, rather than prosecuting a doctor who’s overprescribing opioids. Or it prosecutes a client who is seeking shelter, rather than a bad landlord who’s unlawfully evicting or a predatory lender who’s stealing somebody’s home.

I represent people who are accused of stealing from their employers when in fact their employers are misclassifying workers, stealing their wages, taking advantage of our undocumented communities, preventing people from unionizing. When you think about it that way it’s a no-brainer, right? These are things that seem intuitive, but again there are people profiting off of this. That really the reason why those types of prosecutions aren’t prioritized, and they should be.

EM

One of the other places where you distinguish yourself is your position on violent crime. Most of the candidates have been pushed to a softer stance on low-level, nonviolent offenses like fare evasion. But you’re one of the only ones to also advocate a less punitive approach to violent crime.

This is worth thinking about, because the more mainstream narrative about mass incarceration focuses so much on drug offenses. But people are starting to realize that only about 20 percent of incarcerated persons are in jail for nonviolent offenses. So, what is your pitch for how we should actually deal with more serious offenses?

TC

We aren’t going to have real change and reform in our criminal justice system if we ignore violent crime. We’re talking about people: not bad people or good people, but just people. If the goal is public safety, then we should be doing whatever it takes to say, “How do we make sure this harm doesn’t happen again and how do we keep people safe?” The answer is not, overwhelmingly, to just throw somebody in a cage and then throw them back out on the street after whatever the sentence is. Where they’re not in a position to thrive.

It’s personal to me. I think about my grandfather. My grandfather was a guy who was incredibly physically abusive to his family. To the point where my grandmother left him and my mom dropped out of high school to take care of the family. When I got older, and he was dying — essentially, he was drinking himself to death, he struggled with alcoholism — my mom let him back into our lives. And for me, he was the most patient, kind, funny person … I loved him to death.

He’d play the guitar for me, he’d tell me these wild, fantastical stories. When I got older I thought about this abusive husband and father, and this really incredible grandfather, and recognized that they were just so equally true. He was somebody that could have been cycling in and out of our criminal justice system, but it wouldn’t account for the fact that he was a Korean War combat veteran, he came home with PTSD, self-medicated with alcohol. And where were our systems in place to support him so that he could support his family? So that he could do things differently?

I see that with my clients all the time. There will be somebody that is getting into fights and the DA says “Hey, we gotta throw this person in jail.” My answer is “Well you’ve thrown him in jail two or three times, he comes back, he’s still engaging in this behavior, we’re not changing behavior. Let’s learn about him instead. He has a trauma history, he is somebody who was abused badly as a child. All that was modeled for him were really unhealthy relationships. Why can’t we invest in support services, why can’t we give him access to therapy?” Because that could change behavior rather than throwing him in jail, which obviously isn’t working.

Tying it back in to my personal story: what was modeled for my parents, certainly, were unhealthy relationships. Then what were modeled for me were really unhealthy relationships. It is only through access to things like therapy that have allowed me to be able to navigate relationships in a healthier way than those who came before me in my family tree. Now I recognize that we should be taking a holistic trauma-informed approach to address violence.

EM

I’ve heard it said that our carceral system is our mental health system, the only one that exists for poor people in the United States.

TC

Rikers Island, our jail here, is the largest mental health provider in our state. It’s horrific. You get released from Rikers Island, you get a couple days’ worth of medication, and then you’re on your own. The amount of money we’ve spent to incarcerate folks could all be reinvested in comprehensive mental health care access.

I had a client who went through a terrible situation. In a short amount of time I had two or three cases with him and the story was always the same. He was poor, he didn’t have access to regular mental health care services. When he struggled, and recognized that he wasn’t able to self-regulate, he’d walk into an emergency room, and then in the emergency room he’d get arrested. He’d get arrested for going to get help for his struggles with mental health issues.

That’s a failure of our system. We should be talking about why we don’t have safe staffing in our hospitals, why we don’t have more resources, why we aren’t creating environments that allow people to access care. Rather than saying “Hey, we’re going to criminalize you and throw you into the criminal justice system.”

EM

That leads to another question of mine. You said that your client would walk into a hospital and end up arrested. That arrest is partly a choice the NYPD makes. A DA, it seems like, can make choices to not prosecute certain crimes. What effect does that have on police officers’ behavior on the ground? Can that change what that encounter between police and residents is, or is it going be more like a tug of war with the NYPD?

TC

I think it can change police behavior. DAs get to decide what our metrics of success are. But “success” has been defined as convictions and sentences, right? That’s got to change. The metrics should be reducing recidivism, decarcerating, applying the law fairly across racial and class lines. The police department is typically going to make arrests that the DA’s office supports, that it is going to then take and prosecute. So, I think that it is a mechanism for informing the police department what kind of offenses they should be focusing on.

Also, with the resources that the DA’s office has, there’s an opportunity to reinvest in our community. The DA’s office does have those resources, so that police officers aren’t the first responders in situations where they really shouldn’t be.

EM

So, you would be able to potentially resource more mental health responders, more centers for people to seek out that kind of help, instead of having the criminal justice system be the only answer.

TC

That’s the goal. A lot of people don’t know that the Queens district attorney’s office is sitting on $100,000,000 worth of federal asset forfeiture money. That money should be reinvested back into our communities through participatory budgeting. So, saying to communities, “You’ve been denied a lot of the resources that would allow you not to just survive but thrive. So, specific to where you are, what are the ways that we can reinvest? Do you want some more money in your schools? Do you want some more money in access to mental health services?”

EM

I’m going to ask you about one more part of your agenda. You advocate not prosecuting sex workers and for a larger vision of decriminalization. When I was reading about this, almost all your opponents say “Well, I would want to send people to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court.” Can you explain to me what it means to send people to this court, and why a totally different approach is needed?

TC

The Queens Human Trafficking Court has functioned as a continued driver of oppression and harm to our sex work community. The second that you introduce somebody to the criminal justice system you are injecting a ton of destabilizing and stigmatizing factors that continue to perpetuate the barriers that those folks are experiencing.

If you want to target true trafficking, then you have to fully decriminalize so that you’re creating a space where survivors and victims can access health care services, can feel comfortable cooperating with the district attorney’s office or law enforcement. Doing anything to drive the behavior underground just increases the risk of harm and violence. You can’t take the middle ground and say “Well, I’m not going to prosecute sex workers but I’m going to prosecute their customers.” Again you are creating an environment where there’s still a fear of decriminalization and there’s serious destabilization.

We’re talking about communities who oftentimes engage in sex work because of discrimination in other areas, because of barriers to housing and job opportunities and health care. In Queens, in Jackson Heights we have a population of trans Latina women engaged in sex work. In our Flushing area we have migrant communities that are doing work in massage parlors. This is work, it’s how they support themselves and their families.

EM

How does this human trafficking court work? Is there still a fear of being prosecuted and being criminalized in this court? Because a lot of your opponents present it as, “Well no one ever gets prosecuted in this,” like it’s a nonthreatening, teddy bear solution.

TC

No, not at all. The court takes the approach — which is incredibly disempowering — that everybody who comes through that court system is a victim. It’s this paternalistic approach that doesn’t acknowledge the serious barriers that some of our communities face. It doesn’t acknowledge that sex work is a choice, that’s made for a number of different reasons, all of which are valid.

EM

You’ve been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. How does your campaign fit into a broader democratic-socialist agenda? What is the socialist message about community safety?

TC

My campaign and democratic socialism are very much in line because we are talking about popular control of resources, right? We have a criminal justice system that is profiting off of breaking black and brown bodies, low-income communities, our immigrant communities, our LGBTQIA communities. When we talk about what this office could be, there is a real opportunity to put some change in place that moves us forward in terms of reaching racial, social, and economic justice. To reinvest resources in things that are basic rights, and promote public safety and public health.

EM

Definitely. Increasingly we’ve seen, as we run democratic -socialist candidates in cities like in New York or Chicago, that to achieve our program we really do need to confront the power of the courts and the carceral system. In Chicago someone asked the new mayor Lori Lightfoot what they should do with the closed down schools in the city. And she said “Oh, we should turn them into mini police academies.” The urban political elite is very clear about the inverse relationship between investing in police and redistribution to poor communities of color. We should be clear about that too.

TC

You cannot separate our criminal justice from housing, health care, and education. You just can’t.