On Monday, hundreds of elected officials, community leaders and civic groups attended the swearing in of Melinda Katz as the new Queens district attorney.
The ceremony took place inside Carnesecca Arena at St. John’s University, where Katz attended law school before a long career in politics that includes stints in the Assembly, City Council, and most recently, as Queens borough president.
After being sworn in by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Katz said in her speech that every office she’s held, and all of her education and training, led her to this spot.
“I’m convinced I’m here at the right time, at the right place, to be the steady hand of this great team to bring justice to this borough,” she said. “It is clear looking back that this position is the logical outcome of the path I have followed my entire life.”
Katz defeated public defender Tiffany Caban, former judge Greg Lasak and nearly half a dozen other candidates in the Democratic primary for district attorney last summer. After a manual recount, the former borough president emerged with a 55-vote advantage over Caban.
It was enough for her to claim victory. Katz easily beat the Republican candidate, Joe Murray, in the general election in the fall.
During the campaign, Katz pledged many reforms to the office, which was led for three decades by Richard Brown until he stepped down just before his death last year. In her inauguration speech, Katz said there has been a “growing awareness” of the injustices and inequities of the criminal justice system.
“We are in a position to stand up, speak out and make real change,” she said.
Before she took office on January 1, Katz already announced several new policies. The new Queens district attorney will no longer follow the “180.80 waiver policy,” which demands that defendants waive their right to a timely grand jury if they want to initiate a plea bargain negotiation.
The office will also adopt a new policy of engaging in plea bargain discussions after indictment, a reversal from the previous administration.
“These are policies that aided and forced defendants to accept plea bargains,” Katz said. “But they did not, in my opinion, further the cause of justice.”
Another addition is the creation of the borough’s first conviction integrity unit, which will be led by Bryce Benjet, a former senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project.
Katz said her office will continue to focus on issues like gun violence, immigration and hate crimes.
As for bail reform, Katz called the “old system” of keeping people in jail for not having money “preposterous.” She pledged during the campaign to end the use of cash bail.
But she was criticized when her office requested cash bail in a case on January 1, according to reports. Outside her inauguration at Carnesecca Arena, a small group of protesters demanded change.
In her speech, Katz addressed those criticisms, calling it an “ongoing process.”
“My office is committed to ending cash bail in all forms, period, but it must be done right,” she said. “We need to make sure it’s done in a way that’s sustainable. We will figure it out.”
The new district attorney said they have more time to assess the “inner workings of the office,” they will take another look at other policy and structural changes after 100 days.
“I know we will meet and surpass those challenges,” Katz said.
Dozens of elected officials attended the ceremony, including Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Hochul spoke about the need to drive down hate crimes, which are up 20 percent from one year ago.
“This is when history has called upon Melinda Katz to step forward and protect innocent citizens,” she said. “That is the challenge of 2020.”
James, meanwhile, said she’s looking forward to Katz’s “open-minded approach” to serving justice.
“Melinda takes office at a pivotal moment of criminal justice reforms,” she said. “I’m confident she is the right person at the right time to steer the ship of justice here in Queens in a new and better direction.”
The mayor, who served with Katz in the City Council a decade ago, praised her for her work ethic and professionalism. De Blasio also said she believes in justice and fairness.
“She is not wedded to the ways of the past,” he said. “By her very being, she is someone who wants to see us do better, wants us to improve and innovate all the time.”
Michael Simons, dean of the St. John’s University School of Law, noted that Katz graduated from the school in 1990 and was admitted to the bar in 1991, right around the time Brown took office.
He said 30 years ago, there was no “progressive prosecutor,” but Queens now has a person at the helm who embraces that vision.
“This ceremony marks not just a changing of the guards, but a changing of how the office of district attorney is conceived,” Simons said.
At the inauguration, Katz also announced her leadership team, which includes Jennifer Naiburg as chief assistant district attorney, Camille Chin-Kee Fatt as chief of staff, and Colleen Babb as executive assistant district attorney for community partnerships.
Johnnette Traill will head up the Appeals and Special Litigation Division, Daniel Saunders will lead the Major Crimes Division, Pishoy Yacoub spearheads the Supreme Court Trial Division, and Angela Albertus will be in charge of the Criminal Practice and Policy Division.
John Castellano will return to the office as counsel to the Queens DA.
“I was elected because of the trust I will bring, a steady hand in these times of uncertainty,” Katz said while closing out the ceremony. “I look forward to that challenge.”