Working as a public defender for about six years was more than enough for Tiffany Cabán of Queens, New York to realize that the “unfair, unjust and inequitable” criminal justice system in her community needed to change.
Cabán recalls representing people going to trial for issues like jumping subway turnstiles and feeling like the district attorney’s office was not doing enough to protect them.
“If anybody else had been arrested for these lower level offenses, it wouldn't impact their lives in such an extreme way,” Cabán told NBC News. “The exceptions to the rules are always the same people: our black and brown who are from low income, immigrant communities. I'd be in court every day seeing this and really being incredibly frustrated.”
Cabán, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and identifies as queer, channeled some of that frustration into running for Queens County district attorney. In order to be on the election ballot in November, she needs to compete against six other candidates and win the Democratic nomination on June 25.
Cabán's outspoken take on the issues — and the endorsement from prominent progressives like fellow New Yorker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — has generated national attention and put a spotlight on her grassroots campaign.
"The reason why I became a public defender is because the work felt tied to not just my own survival but the survival of my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community," Cabán told NBC News. "And so this is an opportunity to continue that work.”
Cabán is running on a platform that echoes some of the concerns voiced by criminal justice advocates for years, urging not to prosecute "crimes of poverty" like subway fare evasion, recreational drug use or loitering. She wants to end cash bail as a way to work towards reducing the county’s pretrial prison population, as well as seek shorter sentences for felonies and close more jails.
“I grew up in housing projects and these are communities that have been historically left behind, over-policed, over-criminalized and resource-scarce — we deserve to be heard and then just be provided access to basic needs [so] that we have the ability to not just survive but thrive,” Cabán said. “It's really about building relationships with the people you come into contact with, learning about their traumatic histories, what's going on in their communities, as a way to understand behavior so that we can more effectively change behavior.”
Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national civil rights group, explained that district attorneys have “quite a bit of power” to reform the criminal justice system.
They are able to change, negotiate or lower charges, he explained. They also have power over pre-trial prison population and bail. In some states, district attorney’s are also involved on the parole board.
“In the 80s and 90s nobody was running for office on these issues. Now, the people are asking candidates to take a stance on issues like bail, marijuana convictions… Anybody running for office now needs to have a position on these issues,” Cartagena told NBC.
Cabán is running against a crowded field including Melinda Katz, considered the front-runner because of her career in Queens politics; she has the backing of the local Democratic Party. However, the aspiring district attorney has never tried a case in criminal court, which has been constantly pointed out by her rivals throughout the campaign.
Other candidates include two Latinos, both former prosecutors. Betty Lugo, a former Republican, is running on a moderate platform of "firm but fair" policies. Jose Nieves, an army veteran, promises "fair and equal justice for all." Also on the ballot are Mina Malik, Gregory Lasak and Rory Lancman, who recently dropped out of the race.
But it's Caban's promise to have "a clean break from the status quo," as she said in a recent debate, that has given her candidacy national visibility.
A growing call for reform
The past five or six years has seen a rise in calls for significant criminal justice reform, according to Cartagena.
He attributes increased push across Latino communities to a “lack of transparency” in the criminal justice system and the fact that technology has helped put “police brutality more in your face.”
“One third of the U.S. workforce has a criminal record, so Latinos will get caught up. The system is too big,” said Cartagena.
For Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas in Dallas, the surge in demand for reform coincides with calls from people urging law enforcement to collect better data to understand how Hispanics are getting caught up in the criminal justice system.
“It’s possible that Latinos need specific resources, but we don’t know that,” Piquero told NBC.
According to data collected by the Urban Institute, only 40 states report race in their arrest records and only 15 states report ethnicities such as Latino or Hispanic.
“States that only count people as “black" or “white” likely label most of their Latino prison population “white,” artificially inflating the number of “white” people in prison and masking the white/black disparity in the criminal justice system,” the Urban Institute report reads.
In New York, where Cabán is running, Latinos make up nearly 30 percent of the state’s population. Yet it only collects data on Latinos who are part of the parole and prison population — not those who are arrested or are part of the probation population.
“None of these new policies that we intend to implement will mean anything if we don't change culture and change how we're measuring success,” said Cabán. “We're not going to be measuring success through how many convictions we can get, how quickly and how many people we can throw in jail.”
Cabán added "we are at this precipice of a point where needed change could save thousands and thousands of lives.”
LatinoJustice's Cartagena, who has spent decades working on criminal justice issues, said that system reform should not only focus on fixing the future, but helping those who have been affected by the consequences of unduly harsh prosecutions and sentences.
“It should also be about retroactive restoration,” he said. “And right now there’s not enough political will to do this.”
Cabán said that if she wins on Tuesday, she hopes to be part of a change many see as way overdue.
Her plans include engaging in a series of community efforts to provide people across neighborhoods with services that could help close what is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“When you lay your head down at night, knowing that you have a job, education opportunities, health care, it's the best way to keep our community safe,” Cabán said. “Stability equals public safety.”