As a true trailblazer, DA Katz has discovered and implemented new ways of fulfilling the role of chief law enforcement officer of Queens County and has paved the way for others to join in the pursuit of a fairer criminal justice system.
For the first time in the history of the Queens DA’s Office, the top three positions are held by women. DA Katz assembled a top-notch leadership team with the unique kind of expertise and specialized skills to usher in a new era in Queens County, adding experienced professionals while retaining the most talented members of the Office.
DA Katz re-organized bureaus and divisions throughout the Office to better serve the needs of the communities she was elected to protect. Through her thoughtful redesign, collaboration was born, and divisions and bureaus now work in partnership to further justice while keeping Queens safe. Many of these bureaus are the first of their kind in the history of this county. New initiatives and policies have been implemented to create positive change and promote fairness and justice.
In her inaugural year, DA Katz appointed 35 new Assistant District Attorneys who are a diverse group of talented, dedicated professionals to support the Office’s mission to keep those who live and work in Queens safe while helping to ensure the criminal justice system is fairer for all. Of the 35 new Assistant District Attorneys, more than half are women and people of color – representing the diversity of Queens. Likewise, the inaugural class of the Brave Justice Summer Internship Program was the most diverse group of students in the history of the Queens District Attorney’s Office and was carefully selected to reflect the “World’s Borough.” The students represented 15 different law schools and 11 colleges. Many of them were bilingual, speaking Spanish, Mandarin, Urdu, Farsi, German, Haitian Creole, French, Serbian, Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian and Russian and many were from our local Queens neighborhoods.
Ending Cash Bail
District Attorney Katz’s vision is a criminal justice system where a person’s financial situation does not determine whether they are held in jail on a pending case. Whether a person has money or not should not be a factor in whether they are incarcerated pre-trial.
DA Katz is leading the Office in transitioning toward ending cash bail here in Queens. To that end, she is working towards an unbiased system that does not penalize the poor or favor the wealthy. Under DA Katz’s leadership, the Office makes certain that all defendants are treated fairly and in a non-discriminatory way, while protecting the communities we serve. The District Attorney is exploring pretrial supervision and monitoring options so that we may increasingly allow more defendants to be released pretrial. Until all the tools and alternatives to incarceration are in place, every request for bail is painstakingly scrutinized.
DA Katz firmly believes that New York should allow judges to consider the ‘dangerousness’ of a defendant as a factor in determining whether to hold them in jail pending trial. If someone is a threat to our community’s safety because there is a likelihood they will reoffend if they are released, then they should not be on the streets; if they are not, they should not have to sit in jail awaiting trial regardless of their financial situation.
DA Katz’s policies recognize that there are certain individuals who are drivers of crime in our neighborhoods who should remain in jail pending the serious charges they are facing. However, rather than simply asking for an inordinate bail amount to hold the defendant, her staff requests that those defendants be remanded to custody, taking finances and wealth out of the equation.
While there are certain exceptions, generally, the new bail laws exclude the setting of bail on individuals charged with misdemeanors and certain lower level, non-violent felonies. On the remaining bail-qualifying offenses, the Office is making strides to make the criminal justice system more fair and just for the communities we serve.
Reducing the Jail Population
Since District Attorney Katz took office, the number of individuals in jail on a Queens County case has been greatly reduced. The reduction in jail population is due to several factors, including fewer overall arrests, mercy releases of inmates during the height of the pandemic, fewer bail eligible offenses, and DA Katz’s policies and initiatives.
Recognizing that incarceration is not the only way to keep our communities safe, the DA’s policies are making a significant difference and have worked to reduce incarceration by:
- Declining to prosecute certain categories of offenses, including low level marijuana offenses and transit fare evasion
- Conducting individualized review of all cases to determine whether it is appropriate to go forward with a criminal prosecution
- Working with our communities to engage youth, break the cycle of crime, and offer a better path forward
- Expediting release of vulnerable incarcerated defendants during the pandemic through plea offers, sentence modifications, and bail reductions
- Utilizing diversion, alternative sentencing, probation, and conditional discharge sentences
In her first year as District Attorney, DA Katz has doubled the use of a probation sentence in both misdemeanor and felony cases. Those charged with misdemeanors in 2020 saw a 10% decrease in jail sentences and a 12% increase in the sentence of probation or conditional discharge.
Serving our Immigrant Communities
To better serve our immigrant community, District Attorney Katz created the position of Immigration Specialist. A broad range of criminal convictions may trigger severe immigration consequences for noncitizen defendants such as removal from the United States and denial of other benefits. The Immigration Specialist serves as an office-wide resource and primarily helps Assistant District Attorneys navigate through plea options; together they may fashion dispositions that will prevent unwanted immigration consequences should the equities call for it, while at the same time, closely honor what would be a similar disposition for a citizen.
Since the creation of the position, the Immigration Specialist has been involved in over 30 such dispositions. In addition, and in her first year in Office, DA Katz agreed to reduce or vacate entirely the convictions of 21 defendants in order to avoid harsh immigration consequences. These convictions were based on the defendant’s prior pleas of guilty and were validly obtained, but later resulted in immigration proceedings that were not contemplated at the time of the plea. Ordinarily, the prior conviction would be vacated and the defendant would be allowed to re-plead to a lesser offense that did not carry the same immigration consequence as the original offense. In some of these cases, the defendants were able to avoid deportation as a result of the reduced plea because the new offenses did not qualify as a basis for removal under federal law (the Immigration and Naturalization Act). In others, the reduction of the offense allowed the defendant to seek relief from an immigration court that would not otherwise be available. And in some cases, the District Attorney proactively provided more relief than requested to ensure that no immigration consequence would accrue to the defendant. In all of these cases, the District Attorney’s consent and cooperation was required to allow the defendant to avoid the immigration consequence.
In 6 additional cases, DA Katz recommended a pardon to the Governor so that the defendants could avoid deportation consequences attendant to their convictions. In all of the cases, significant immigration consequences were avoided.
In addition, the Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) works with every bureau and unit to protect the rights of all immigrants who are victims of crimes. OIA is focused on helping immigrants navigate the criminal justice system, educating our communities on their rights, issuing U and T-Visa certifications and protecting the rights of all immigrants regardless of their immigration status.
OIA also offers trainings and presentations at events to educate our communities on their rights and works closely with other agencies to promote immigrant rights.
OIA processes hundreds of U-Visa and T-Visa applications yearly to assist undocumented witnesses who have cooperated with the prosecution of their cases or been the victims of trafficking crimes.
Restoring Trust and Ensuring Integrity
DA Katz has begun the work of restoring trust between the criminal justice system and the communities we serve.
The new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) was established on day one and has been actively working to make sure that no one has been wrongfully convicted of a crime in Queens County. This Unit is the District Attorney’s signature initiative and one of the first promises made to the people of Queens when she became the county’s top law enforcement officer. To date, the Conviction Integrity Unit has received 100 cases for review.
The CIU’s mandate is to reinvestigate and resolve credible claims of actual innocence or wrongful convictions. In addition to the hard work of traditional fact investigation, the Unit utilizes cutting-edge DNA technology and other state-of-the-art forensic techniques to ensure the confidence of previous convictions.
The Cold Case Unit is the first unit ever in Queens County dedicated entirely to investigating and solving the borough’s oldest and most challenging unsolved homicide cases. The unit uses groundbreaking forensic testing and cutting-edge investigative techniques to examine unsolved crimes to bring long-awaited justice to victims and their families.
Currently, there are approximately 2,200 unsolved murders in Queens County. These investigations are often very complex and challenging -- requiring investigators and prosecutors to build upon the work of others, often with limited case files and information. As a result, with the passage of time, most cases become harder to prove. Advancements in forensic technology have provided new and valuable tools to be used during investigations. Some evidence that was once thought to be “unsuitable” for testing or once yielded “inconclusive” results may now be considered “suitable” and may in fact yield the identification of a suspect that was once unknown. In addition, the increase of profiles contained in national databases and familial DNA testing could produce not only investigative leads, but could also solve a case. There have also been significant advancements in fingerprint identification, crime scene identification, and other technology that can contribute to an increased likelihood of producing relevant evidence in a cold case.
To support the newly created Conviction Integrity Unit and the Cold Case Unit, and nearly all criminal prosecutions at the Queens District Attorney’s Office, DA Katz created a position of Forensic Science Specialist. The Forensic Science Specialist facilitates the presentation of forensic science evidence in the grand jury and at trial, conducts office-wide training regarding DNA, ballistic, and fingerprint evidence, and handles all complex Frye litigation relating to reliability and relevancy of expert witnesses.
District Attorney Katz brings a steady hand to help stem the tide of violence plaguing our streets. Under her leadership, the Office works tirelessly with our communities and law enforcement partners to bring justice to those who put our lives at risk. Guided by DA Katz’s vision, her staff works every day to earn the trust of our communities in addressing crime and keeping our neighborhoods safe. Assistant District Attorneys are assigned 24/7 to an immediate response riding program and respond to scenes of serious crimes in our neighborhoods, including homicides, shootings, robberies, burglaries, domestic violence, sex crimes, child abuse and felonious assaults. Assistant District Attorneys assigned to the Major Crimes and Homicide riding programs are available 24 hours a day to assist the police with investigative needs such as search warrants, line-ups and subpoenas, and have responded to thousands of notifications for assistance and inquires throughout the year.