The Reformer Prosecutor May Have Lost the Queens District Attorney Race After All

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Professor John Pfaff‘s research was cited in a Vox article about the recount in the Democratic primary for the Queens District Attorney race that indicates Melinda Katz will be selected as the Democratic candidate in the November general election.

Cabán ran on a very progressive platform, focused on racial justice and criminal justice reform. She promised to end cash bail; decriminalize drugs, sex work, subway turnstile jumping, and other crimes of poverty; and set up an internal unit to review wrongful convictions. When I spoke to Cabán in May, she also talked about taking violent crimes seriously — speaking to the duality that minority communities face in that they often feel law enforcement simultaneously overpolices them for minor crimes but underpolices them for serious ones.

Cabán’s candidacy drew national attention, receiving endorsements from high-profile Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Katz advocated for some reforms, but generally didn’t go as far as the other candidates in the race. She only vowed to end prosecutions for marijuana possession and sex work — in contrast to the broader list from Cabán — and only took a stronger stance against cash bail toward the end of the campaign.

Local prosecutors are very powerful in these systems. They effectively decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t, and how long someone goes to prison, by unilaterally choosing what charges to bring against anyone.

In fact, John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University, has even found evidence that prosecutors may have been the key drivers of mass incarceration in recent decades. By looking at data from state judiciaries, he compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008. He found reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court.

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