Update 8/6/19: Tiffany Cabán conceded the Democratic primary election for Queens District Attorney after a six-week recount. A judge refused to reinstate most of the ballots the Cabán campaign had contested and Melinda Katz won by just 55 votes. Katz will face the Republican nominee in November's general election.
Bianey Garcia was tired when she answered the phone Wednesday afternoon. She’d stayed up late Tuesday night awaiting the results of the Queens District Attorney race, and then celebrating when multiple outlets called an upset for Tiffany Cabán: a 31-year-old queer Latina woman, who promised not to prosecute sex workers if elected.
“I cried a lot,” said Garcia, a former sex worker and a community organizer at Make the Road New York. “I stayed [at the results party] until the end,” she continued. “I stayed until Tiffany left.”
The votes are still being counted in Cabán’s race—as of Wednesday night, she and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz were separated by about 1,000 votes—but other advocates for sex workers are sharing Garcia’s elation. For months, Decrim NY, a coalition of current and former sex workers, trafficking victims, and their allies, has been fighting to get more elected officials on board with decriminalizing sex work. The decriminalization model the group proposes involves repealing parts of the state penal code that deem prostitution and “promoting prostitution” criminal behavior, and target transgender women and transgender women of color in particular.
The movement to decriminalize sex work has been gaining momentum not just in New York, but across the country, and has rapidly become an issue on which presidential candidates are now pressed to take a position. So when Cabán, a first-time candidate with an unapologetic stance on decriminalization, decided to take on the Queens establishment, her campaign made national headlines, as did her primary victory on Tuesday.
“I can’t overstate enough how big of a deal this is,” said Nina Luo, a Decrim NY steering committee member and organizer at VOCAL-NY. “We know how violent and disruptive policing is to people in the sex trade. We have a real opportunity to build policy in the Queen’s District Attorney office.”
Cabán has said that a memo instructing district attorneys not to prosecute sex workers or their customers will come from her desk on “day one.” But changing decades of police practices is no simple task, and Cabán’s predecessor, the late Richard Brown, gained a reputation over his 27 years in office for criminalizing people participating in sex work: Last year, more than half of the city’s arrests for "loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution" occurred in Queens, in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations.
The path ahead may present significant difficulties as Cabán begins to implement a vision for decriminalizing sex work that has only begun to make its way into mainstream political discourse.
Cabán has said that a memo instructing district attorneys not to prosecute sex workers or their customers will come from her desk on “day one.”
Lucy Lang, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, said Cabán may encounter some pushback from some New York City Police Department precincts, which aren’t always in total agreement with their borough’s DA. And while Cabán can turn away any residents taken in on prostitution charges, Lang says it can create tension between a DA’s office and law enforcement officials.
“The DA might say, ‘You can bring these cases in, but I’m turning them away at the door,’” Lang said. “You can change police departments’ policies and behavior, but it’s not great to have an [adversarial] relationship with a police department. Hopefully whenever possible, major policy changes will happen with inter-agency collaboration …"
Lang has seen this go a couple of ways: When Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced his office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking offenses last year, Lang said it was met with little opposition from the NYPD. On the other hand, she says the NYPD has largely ignored Vance’s decision to stop prosecuting New Yorkers for fare evasion, with Governor Andrew Cuomo recently dispatching hundreds of officers to 100 so-called fare evasion “hot spots.”
Cabán may also need to make sweeping changes in the Queens district attorney’s office much like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner did last year, when he asked 31 employees to resign during his first week, anticipating resistance to his criminal justice reform agenda. (Krasner, whose office has also declined to prosecute sex workers in most cases, endorsed Cabán a few weeks before the election.)
When a district attorney declines to prosecute certain offenses, it can help pave the way to decriminalizing the offense altogether.
Implementing a radical new vision can introduce these sorts of hitches, Lang said. But she says the relationships Cabán has formed with community organizations can help the new DA transform Queens into a borough where sex workers are permitted to do their work without being criminalized, even in the face of other opposition.
Decrim NY plans to continue developing policy with Cabán, and has discussed ways that local groups can help field reports about harassment, assault, and exploitation from sex workers—people who have historically been hesitant to come forward for fear of prosecution. “Right now people don’t report things to the police because when they do they get arrested, or police laugh at them or misgender them,” Luo said.
Luo and other Decrim NY members have been pushing for a legislative fix for the ways sex workers are currently criminalized in New York. In May, the group met with lawmakers in Albany to lobby for two bills: one that would repeal a state penal code that criminalizes “loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution,” and another that would provide criminal record relief for those convicted of sex work-related crimes. And this month, the organization rolled out a full decriminalization package, which proposes changes to almost a dozen state laws. But even unprecedented support from lawmakers like State Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos wasn’t enough to get the legislation through this session.
Lang says that could change with Cabán. When a district attorney declines to prosecute certain offenses, it can help pave the way to decriminalizing the offense altogether —it’s a test run of sorts, said Lang. It can also demonstrate to residents that decriminalizing a certain behavior doesn’t jeopardize public safety or bring with it any particularly dire consequences.
“The sky didn’t fall when we stopped prosecuting marijuana in Manhattan, and that made it easier to advance the argument for decriminalization in the legislature,” Lang said. “Once you’ve tried something, it’s less threatening.”
There are still plenty of groups that insist on painting sex work as something lurid, an activity that will invite unfettered crime and moral corruption to their neighborhoods. But with Cabán’s victory and a growing national spotlight on decriminalization efforts, advocates see glimmers of hope.
Garcia—a Queens resident who, years ago, spent 18 months at Rikers Island for a prostitution-related offense—can imagine how things would have gone differently if Brown, the district attorney at the time, had adopted a policy similar to Cabán’s. Or how Layleen Polanco might not have died earlier this month in that same jail if she hadn’t been criminalized as a sex worker.
“We hope we can change Queens, and change the stigma that sex work [has] for many people,” Garcia said. “And I think we did it.” With Cabán, she said, “we already changed it.”