Policies & Proposals
Having spent most of my career prosecuting and defending criminal cases, I know first hand what works and what doesn’t work. After working both sides of the system, I know its ins and outs. I see where there’s room for improvement and where fixes can be made immediately, without the need for additional tax dollars, utilizing what’s available to us right now.
In my view, business as usual isn’t working in the war against crime. It’s time for a change, in the form of cost-effective, result-oriented changes to the way our District Attorney’s Office operates and responds to the dramatic uptick in crime we have all seen and experienced.
These are just some of my ideas and proposals I would immediately implement if elected:
Immediate Creation of a Narcotics Enforcement Team (“NET”) Within the District Attorney’s Office to Focus Exclusively on Narcotics-Related Prosecutions
The most pressing issue affecting all of us – and by all of us, I mean, you, me, our neighbors and all the residents here in Chautauqua County, as well as each of the police agencies operating in the County and the District Attorney’s Office – is that of the drug epidemic plaguing our community. What we see are:
- street level narcotics sales, occurring not just in and around the Dunkirk and Jamestown cities, but within our outlying communities as well;
- rampant use of heroin and derivative opoids;
- rising widespread use and manufacture of methamphetamine, including the increasing number of meth labs cropping up right here in our communities; and
- a marked deterioration of our neighborhoods, and a resulting diminishment of our quality of life occasioned by an increase in burglaries, robberies, larcenies and other criminal activities associated with widespread drug use.
Our police are literally neck deep trying to deal with the problem. For this reason, dating back to when we first experienced a crack epidemic, many of our County police agencies combined manpower and resources to form the Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force (the “STRDTF”). They understood then, and it applies more so now, that the drug epidemic and all the crimes which arise from it is a systemic problem which cannot be effectively attacked without a concentrated focus, including sharing knowledge and information between law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, for various reasons including lack of funding, participation in the STRDTF is not what it used to be and many of our police are combating the drug epidemic through their own initiatives, without the aid of a County-wide law enforcement unit to dedicate its power and resources to the fight.
The District Attorney’s Office has the resources to spear-head that fight through implementation of its own Narcotics Enforcement Team (“NET”) within the office – a bureau whose exclusive function is to prosecute and oversee drug and related-crime arrests, and work closely with the STRDTF, Jamestown Metro Drug Task Force and individual police agencies here in Chautauqua County, to serve as a cohesive structure around which the County’s police can come together and coalesce in one unifying offensive against the drug epidemic. Through implementation of a NET unit dedicated exclusively to the war on drugs, our prosecutors will sharpen their expertise in narcotics prosecutions and provide the police with more sophisticated, wider-reaching investigative tools, such as pen registers and wiretapping applications which are routinely employed by other law enforcement agencies to obtain the evidence needed to arrest higher-tier drug suppliers. A NET initiative in our DA’s office ensures that prosecutors work closer with police in the pre-arrest investigative stages of cases, assisting where needed on search warrant applications and bringing to bear a greater awareness of search and seizure laws which play a critical role in narcotics and related-crime prosecutions. One more function of NET, but certainly not the last, would be to monitor and even reach out beyond the courtrooms to determine the most effective prosecutorial responses for drug cases in line with the lowest recidivism (repeat offender) rate.
We simply cannot effectively address the drug problem without dedicating law enforcement personnel exclusively to the task. The police agencies have done it. Its time for the District Attorney’s Office to do it as well.
Overdose Response Initiative
- Police will notify the District Attorney’s Office whenever there is a drug overdose death.
- DA Investigators and police treat the death as a homicide scene. (Right now, an overdose death is, for the most part, not investigated by police because of the view that the only criminality is that which was committed by the deceased against himself.)
- Police and prosecutors begin gathering information on the deceased, to include the type of drug he or she used, where and when the death occurred, who discovered the deceased, and who are the deceased’s close friends and acquaintances.
- If a cell phone is found on the deceased, police will seek consent from the next of kin to search the phone and compare the information on it to other incidents for possible similarities. In this fashion, we will develop a database of telephone numbers and other contact information on suspected drug dealers to compare with other investigations.
- Police, DA investigators, prosecutors and even the DA’s victim advocates will reach out to the next of kin to gain further insight into their loved one’s activities.
- In addition, we will order a full toxicology examination to determine whether and how the drug was cut. This and other details could help identify the source of the narcotics.
- Finally, we will seek other partners in County government and the private sector to assist in our effort. Public and private professionals and advocates can lend support services to police and victim’s families and help communicate our message.
Utilize Deferred and Non-Prosecution Programs to Steer Addicts into Treatment
There are two sides to every coin. On one side, I feel strongly that we need to target middle and upper tier manufacturers and suppliers for aggressive, no-compromise prosecutions, by utilizing my NET approach (Narcotics Enforcement Team) of dedicated prosecutors assigned exclusively to drug cases to work directly with police during the pre-arrest, investigatory stages of cases. I actually want to create a HIT list of identified targets and work collaboratively with our local police agencies to make high-quality arrests on which we will go to the mat to obtain meaningful convictions with stiff sentences, putting the local illegal drug industry on notice that we are taking back our community.
At the same time, though, I feel equally strong that we cannot create a generation of convicted felons from otherwise law-abiding addicts who need intensive treatment; yet this is what we are doing now with our current Drug Treatment Court policies and practices.
The reality is that on the back end of any Drug Court or Judicial Diversion contract currently implemented in Chautauqua County, each and every defendant, regardless of criminal history and type of arrest, is required to plea to one or more criminal charges. While certainly that is appropriate in the case of certain persons, I believe strongly that it is not helpful to our overriding goal of creating productive citizens where the defendant does not already have a criminal record and did not commit a violent crime or a crime in which someone was directly harmed.
We need to recognize that there are essentially only three paths into treatment: either voluntarily, which rarely occurs; through service plans required in Family Court after a neglect/abuse petition has been filed by Child Protective Services; or through our criminal justice system.
Taking all of this into consideration, we need to follow the examples set by other jurisdictions which routinely employ deferred and non-prosecution programs to steer certain defendants into treatment without tagging them with criminal convictions after completion of programs. We live a very challenging economic climate, one in which it is difficult enough to obtain employment even where one does not have a criminal record. In many instances, a criminal record renders someone unemployable which ultimately defeats the end-goal of making that person a productive member of society. This is why I support and will absolutely implement deferred and non-prosecution programs if I am elected.
Reopen and Review Cold and Abandoned Cases
People are literally getting away with murder here in Chautauqua County. As soon as I take office, I will appoint a lead investigator with extensive experience in homicide and cold case investigations to coordinate with the local police agencies to assemble a list of unprosecuted homicide and missing persons investigations, and to evaluate each and every one of them to determine what further investigation needs to be done, if any, to go forward with prosecutions. Those include, but are not necessarily limited to, the death of 16-month-old Nayla Hodnett in Jamestown, the disappearances of Corrie Anderson of Ashville and Lori Ceci Bova of Jamestown, and the death of Yolanda Bindics, as well as several others that have not been made public.
The District Attorney has tremendous prosecutorial discretion on whether to proceed with a case. My approach is much different than that of the current Acting District Attorney who has gone on record stating he will only prosecute cases on which he can sustain a conviction. Not all cases present sure-fire wins for the prosecution. I believe the District Attorney’s Office needs to be the voice for all victims and we absolutely cannot disregard a case and a victim because a District Attorney is more concerned about his trial record than seeking justice for the victim and victim’s family.
Immediately Require that All Assistant District Attorney's Make Direct Contact with Victims and Complaining Witnesses Within Days of Receiving New Cases, and Maintain Those Contacts Throughout the Case’s Duration
Each and every one of us who has been the victim of a crime knows first-hand that the District Attorney’s Office represents the office of last resort in obtaining justice. Once the hand-off of a file has been made from the police to the prosecutors, it is imperative that the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case make immediate contact with the victim and/or complaining witnesses. This serves multiple purposes in that it: provides immediate reassurance to the victim that the criminal justice system is working properly and that his/her desires matter in the process; affords to the prosecutor an invaluable opportunity to better understand what happened and better assess the strengths and weaknesses of the case; and establishes an immediate line of communication between victim and prosecutor so that critical witnesses are not lost or compromised between the time of arrest and trial, and victims are fully apprised, and not ever caught unaware, of case outcomes.
Although some prosecutors may regularly contact the victims in their cases, and this was always a high priority for me when I worked in the Office, there is no specific District Attorney policy which makes this mandatory. While the office does maintain two Victim’s Advocates who perform this function on a case by case basis when asked by the individual prosecutors, I would require that each prosecutor make direct contact with victims and/or complaining witnesses within days of receiving a new file, and that he or she maintain contact throughout the duration of the case.
Regular Meetings with Police to Review Pending Cases and Investigations
Listening to the Police Chiefs and Officers of each of the police agencies in Chautauqua County, one of the most critical issues needing to be addressed is the need for better communications from the District Attorney’s Office. There is simply no valid reason why police should be caught off guard by plea resolutions or feel that one of their arrests was dealt away and a criminal freed without their input.
Cases involve many complexities and sometimes changing circumstances requiring regular communications with and input from the investigating and arresting officers who are usually very familiar with the defendants and victims, and are therefore best positioned to advise on extenuating circumstances affecting a case’s outcome. In these respects, the successful prosecution of any case requires a collaborative effort between prosecutors and police.
To facilitate better inter-agency communications, I would immediately establish regular meetings between the police and prosecutors before making any offers on cases, to better ensure that any negotiated resolutions are accomplished taking into full consideration the most current knowledge and information available, that all appropriate parties are kept fully informed of the progress of particular cases, and that the police have plenty of notice if and when a case proceeds to trial.
Immediately Change the District Attorney’s Felony Case Assignment Policy From One Which Is Primarily Jurisdiction-Based to One Primarily Centered Around Crime Classifications
Right now, the District Attorney’s Office is run in an antiquated fashion in that, for the most part, prosecutors are assigned caseloads attached to specific courts with little regard for the kinds of crimes presented by new arrests other than the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies. Under this framework, each Assistant District Attorney is assigned responsibility over all misdemeanor or felony cases in different courts, resulting in his or her handling a mixed bag of cases, such as narcotics, sex crimes, shootings and larcenies, with little opportunity to concentrate and hone skills and knowledge in specific areas of criminal law.
While such a case-assignment system may have made sense long ago when it was first implemented and the office handled a far smaller caseload, the science-based prosecutorial methods of today demand a higher degree of specialization and training by personnel to effectively litigate on behalf of the State and obtain meaningful convictions.
For this reason, most district attorneys maintain specific units or bureaus within their offices which exclusively prosecute one particular classification of felony crimes within their respective counties, such as narcotics, special victims (i.e., women, children and the elderly), computer-based, violent and economic crimes. By designating prosecutors to specific practice areas (just as they do in most law offices, both civil and criminal, across the country), these individuals become the specialists in their particular areas of assignment, developing the knowledge and expertise necessary not only to obtain the best possible convictions on behalf of the community, but to guide our police in future investigations.
Change Long Standing Policy So That Defendants Are Evaluated for Drug Treatment Court at or Immediately After Arraignment Rather Than Months Later as is Currently Occurring in a Majority of Cases.
As of January 1st, there are 141 Drug Treatment Courts operating in New York State, including two here in Chautauqua County. Statistics are overwhelmingly clear that the rates at which drug court graduates re-offend are significantly reduced. The program not only treats alcohol and substance addiction but also requires participants to obtain their GED diplomas and/or gainful employment, resolve driver license suspensions and revocations, and address other deficiencies in their lives so that they can become productive members of society.
Treatment Court presents other benefits to law enforcement in that police and prosecutors obtain a guilty plea up front together with a pre-determined sentence, freeing them to focus on other cases. However, not all defendants facing felony or misdemeanor charges where drug addiction is a component are appropriate for participation in Treatment Court. Eligibility is determined based in substantial part upon an evaluation by drug court coordinators, sometimes with input from police and prosecutors.
For reasons no longer relevant, Chautauqua County remains one of only a few jurisdictions which do not evaluate defendants for Treatment Court at the time of their arraignment, instead waiting months into the criminal court process before considering the option. This needs to change.
For those category of cases in which Treatment Court presents the likely or most appropriate outcome, it is wasteful of precious resources to delay the evaluation process and further backlog the courts, police and prosecutors any longer than need be. Evaluation needs to be expedited to the time of arraignment, either by drug court coordinators who are on hand for arraignments at the City Courts, or through police recommendations communicated on the booking sheets for defendants arraigned in the Village or Town Courts. The end-goal here is to quickly and efficiently move those defendants who are in need of treatment into Treatment Court so that they can get the help they need and to free up the police and prosecutors so that they can focus on other serious matters.
Immediate Changes in DA Office Policies to Sharply Reduce the Time Between Arraignment and Final Disposition of Misdemeanor Criminal Cases, Thereby Saving All of Us Money While Simultaneously Promoting More Effective Prosecutions.
Behind the arrest blotters and Police and District Attorney press releases is another story, that of the hidden costs to taxpayers, backlog to the Court system, and invariable prosecutorial compromises occasioned by the protracted length of time it takes to simply move cases through the criminal court system, in many instances lasting several months, and sometimes in excess of one year.
Without question, the lengthy time between arrest and final disposition of criminal cases hurts all of us, in that:
(i) defendants who could not afford to make bail or were not otherwise released at arraignment spend the duration of their cases housed, fed and treated in the County jail while awaiting final disposition of the charges, requiring that they be transported by Sheriff’s personnel to their pre-trial conferences held throughout the County, all at taxpayer expense;
(ii) witnesses and sometimes even victims become unavailable or otherwise compromised by changing circumstances, irreparably damaging the cases; and
(iii) unfortunately, police and prosecutors become distracted by the continuing influx of newer, more pressing cases, leading to more lenient plea offers than what was initially intended at the time of arrest.
This is the present reality for the thousands of cases pending in Chautauqua County, but it does not need to remain that way. Right now, after arraignment, cases sit for upwards of one month, and many times longer, for the scheduling of a pre-trial conference the sole purpose of which is just to communicate the District Attorney’s plea offer to the defense. Often, cases get adjourned multiple times for protracted plea negotiations which serve only to delay the process.
There is no reason, especially here in Chautauqua County with its relatively small number of prosecutors and defense attorneys who all regularly interact, why criminal cases need to sit at a dead standstill for months awaiting pre-trial conferences to communicate the District Attorney’s plea offer, or to await and respond to any defense discovery demands.
Plea offers should and can be communicated immediately together with other predicate notices which are routinely sent by the District Attorney’s Office at the outset of cases, and where appropriate, the People’s discovery packets can also issue immediately, without the need for waiting on a defense demand, thereby instantaneously moving cases several clicks closer to final disposition.
Whether they be misdemeanors or felonies, all criminal cases follow this same basic litigation path:
(i) the defense serves its discovery demands;
(ii) the prosecution responds;
(iii) after reviewing the prosecution’s disclosures, the defense makes any pre-trial requests which it believes are appropriate;
(iv) the Court rules on those requests and holds any necessary hearings; and
(v) a trial is then conducted.
This is the general outline of all scheduling orders which our County Court issues after indictment in each of its felony cases, with strict deadlines for compliance. There’s no reason why local courts should not adhere to the same tight schedule in the adjudication of their misdemeanor cases.
Certainly, it can take a tremendous amount of inertia to change long-standing practices and policies within our local courts. However, as District Attorney, I would immediately meet with the local judges to work with them to adhere to this strict schedule, and from day one I would implement these practices amongst the misdemeanor prosecutors, leading to an immediate reduction in costs and a preservation of the integrity of the cases to ensure the best possible outcome.
More Emphasis on Direct Indictments Rather Than Filing of Felony Complaints, and Less on Pre-Indictment Conferences
There is no question that immediate steps need to be taken to drastically reduce the time between arraignment and final disposition of criminal cases here in Chautauqua County. We simply cannot continue to pay the costs associated with the resulting backlog of cases. These costs are not just financial, as unnecessary delays invariably risk compromising the effective prosecution of cases.
Nowhere is this more easily implemented than with respect to felony cases where, after indictment, a scheduling order issues which dictates the course of the remainder of the case in that it provides for specific deadlines leading up to trial, usually about six months later. The problems lie in the pre-indictment framework in which the current District Attorney’s Office operates. In my opinion, the District Attorney’s Office relies too heavily on pre-indictment conferences, which can take several weeks to schedule, to merely communicate plea offers and determine whether cases can be resolved by plea or need to proceed to indictment. This is especially problematic here in Chautauqua County where we are served by only one County Court Judge who oversees a caseload large enough for two and simply does not have the ability to immediately conference each felony.
The solution lies in shortening, and sometimes altogether eliminating, the pre-indictment process. This can be effectively accomplished two ways. First, more consideration should be given to direct presentations to the Grand Jury, thereby eliminating the entire pre-indictment process. Certainly this is not practical in all situations. But there is no question that direct indictments represent a viable and useful tool available to the prosecution in many cases, and one which, in my opinion, is under utilized here in Chautauqua County, especially as compared to other jurisdictions here in New York State.
The second way to reduce the life of felony cases is to not rely so heavily on pre-indictment conferences. In Erie County, for instance, there are no pre-indictment conferences. Instead, the prosecuting and defense attorneys confer independently and without involving the Court. By contrast, almost each and every felony case commenced in the local courts, and not immediately resolved by reduction to a misdemeanor, is scheduled for a pre-indictment conference here in Chautauqua County. It is a practice which is simply no longer practicable given the increased caseload.
Immediately Establish an Inner-Office “Brief Bank” of Legal Research, Memoranda of Law and Forms to Avoid Needlessly Duplicating Work Already Prepared By the Office.
A substantial part of the work undertaken by prosecutors consists of making and responding to written applications which often times contain memoranda of law outlining particular legal arguments asserted in the context of cases pending before the Court. For the most part these issues are not novel, having arisen many times before within the same office. They also arise in the context of appeals regularly filed after convictions, which need to be opposed by the District Attorney in the appellate courts.
Most large firms and prosecuting offices maintain a database of applications and memoranda which have been fully briefed previously so that they may be re-utilized and updated by the attorneys when and where appropriate, thereby saving tens of man hours which would otherwise be spent essentially recreating work already undertaken. From my experience, our District Attorney’s Office would benefit greatly from the creation of such a database which can be easily implemented in any office served by a common server.