On her last night shift working Manhattan arraignments, public defender Tiffany Cabán was excited about a bench conference. With the help of a Mandarin interpreter, a judge had just informed a husband and wife that they would have a limited order of protection against each other. Both could have gotten full orders preventing contact. But that’s apparently not what the couple wanted, perhaps because they wouldn’t have been able to return to their shared home.
“She’s the only judge in the building who would do this,” Cabán said. She surmised it was because the judge had a background, like her, in public defense.
A more rational or sympathetic attitude toward criminal justice: that’s the heart of Cabán’s political campaign to go over to the other side of the courtroom (metaphorically) and become Queens district attorney.
Public defense – the business of representing the indigent and often defenseless – is not exactly a feeder gig to the job of prosecuting the crimes. A representative for the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York pointed to DAs in Cortland and Columbia County who had been public defenders before ascending to DA. But according to their websites, neither has worked in the business as long as Cabán, 31, a Queens native who has spent approximately seven years on the job between the Legal Aid Society and New York County Defender Services.
For the first time in decades, Queens will have an open DA race starting with a primary in June due to the retirement of long-serving DA Richard Brown. Cabán, who has been endorsed by the newly influential NYC Democratic Socialists of America, is taking leave from her job to run.
That meant Thursday was her last arraignment shift at 100 Centre Street. She spent it representing whatever clients came her way as usual, guzzling water from a jumbo white bottle to stay awake and hydrated.
Arraignments are the entry point into the court system for defendants. Cabán said that many of her clients appear in court around 12 hours or more after being arrested. This is the chance for their lawyer to plead a little bit of their case to the judge who can set bail or release the individual on his or her own recognizance.
It all works like clockwork: Cabán meeting her new clients in the pens behind the judge’s seat and conferring with them briefly before their appearance, the prosecution alleging some of the crimes, the defense explaining how the defendant might have deep New York roots or be going through difficult times, and then the defendant is free or bail is set and the client goes back in the pen and another defendant comes through.
Sit in such a court for a shift and there’s a good chance you won’t catch any explosive murders. More common are small time thefts, possession of illicit substances, domestic violence. Few of the people who cycle through are white and many are homeless.
It’s not a place of easy answers. One of Cabán’s clients had been accused of putting his groin against two women on the subway. The judge set bail.
The husband and wife who were allowed to return home together were seated next to each other on the same bench after the determination. Within seconds they started arguing loudly enough that a court officer told the husband to move to a different bench.
Another of Cabán’s clients was almost falling asleep while he waited, his hands handcuffed behind his back and police officers flanking him. The first time he smiled after some 30 minutes in the court room was when Cabán in her sharp silver suit and ponytail walked his way and talked to him quietly. The prosecution alleged that he had punched an 8-year-old stranger in the face. Cabán countered that he was experiencing mental health issues. “My client needs some support,” she said, noting that he once drove for Uber and charter buses.
Throughout the night, other individuals appeared for shoplifting, or stealing the tip jar and the cell phone of a sleeping woman in a Starbucks.
These are the kinds of complicated situations that Cabán says she wants to look at if elected. She promises to reduce prosecutions of “crimes of poverty” such as jumping turnstiles or petty thefts of food. And she sees many arrests as “unnecessary,” just public health punted to the criminal justice system. Fewer such low-level arrests might leave resources for more impactful investigations.
Progressive DAs across the country are making similar moves, such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who also has a public defense background.
It’s a far cry from the law and order impulses of the 1990s, impulses that aren’t exactly gone: just last week the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia harshly criticized Krasner for being too lenient and brought federal charges in a violent case where the DA had agreed to a plea deal.
That tension between changing the justice system and exercising its power will surely be part of the Queens campaign to come. Cabán is positioning herself as a practitioner with knowledge of how the system affects the people who cycle through it.
“The people directly impacted by our policies should be the ones informing them,” she says.