Is Ulster Ready to be "Smart on Crime?"

The debate between being tough or soft on crime has no value in the criminal justice conversation today; other than as a political distraction and red herring. Forward-thinking communities across the country have implemented “Smart on Crime” policies and have experienced decreases in incarceration rates and crime rates at the same time.

Smart on crime policies aim to drive down incarceration rates in the US which are the highest in the world, encourage alternatives to criminalization and incarceration for low level non-violent offenders, bolster prevention efforts, and ensure that finite resources are devoted to prosecuting dangerous criminals. Smart on crime is not about punishing every offender the same, but using consequences as a tool to make our community safer and stronger. A key to reducing jail populations is diverting people with substance abuse disorders and mental health problems away from the justice system, while allowing mental health and substance abuse professionals to provide treatment.

For decades, research has consistently shown that mass incarceration and law have a negative impact on public safety. Our overuse of jails to punish non-violent offenders causes family separation, untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders, creates a greater risk of reoffending, and wastes tax payer dollars. Leaders in criminal justice reform, regardless of political party affiliation, have instituted smart on crime approaches. Fifty-two jurisdictions have committed to reducing jail populations as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Sadly, Ulster County is not one of them.

Not only has the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office failed to implement Smart on Crime, it has opposed newly enacted laws promoting criminal justice reform while sounding false alarms that these reforms are dangerously “soft on crime”. It’s time to move beyond soundbites and false choices between being either tough on crime or soft on crime, and focus instead, on being smart on crime. I’m Dave Clegg and I’m running to be your next Ulster County District Attorney. I believe Ulster County is more than ready to be Smart on Crime.

Dave Clegg brings four decades of experience practicing criminal defense, and nine years as an Ulster County Public Defender. He has fought for the rights of victims his entire career. Dave is the Chairperson of the Ulster county Human Rights Commission and has been a leader in our community for decades.

Originally featured in-print by Hudson Valley One, 9/6/19

21st Century Justice

District Attorneys wield tremendous power in our criminal justice system.  They decide who to charge, which charges to bring, how much bail to request, what sentences to recommend, and even whether to reduce or dismiss charges.  These decisions have enormous consequences for accused individuals, for victims and for communities as a whole. So, it’s important to have a discussion about the appropriate uses of prosecutorial power.  For too long, that power has been focused on punishment and incarceration for all levels of crime instead of concentrating on removing from the community those who cause the most harm, the “drivers of crime,” while promoting rehabilitation and diversion for those that don’t pose a threat to public safety.

Tragically, we have tried to incarcerate our way out of the opioid crisis. We are incarcerating persons with mental illness instead of diverting them into appropriate treatment programs. What we should be doing in each case is figuring out what outcome is best for the victim, the community and whether there is an opportunity to rehabilitate the defendant. What intervention will keep us safer and what intervention will strengthen the community? Throughout New York there are successful diversion programs, which are providing treatment and rehabilitation for persons with substance abuse disorders, mental health problems, veterans and youth. These programs offer defendants the opportunity to be accountable and to repair the harm they’ve done. The Ulster County District Attorney’s office has woefully neglected diversion programs.

I’m Dave Clegg and I’m running to be your next Ulster County District Attorney.  I want to focus on convicting the “drivers of crime”, promote rehabilitation and engage our community as a partner in justice. In the following weeks, this column will explain the problems that plague our criminal justice system and present solutions for them. I hope you will support me in brining 21st century justice to Ulster County, by making our community safer more just for all.

Dave Clegg brings four decades of experience practicing criminal defense, and nine years as an Ulster County Public Defender.  He has fought for the rights of victims his entire career. Dave is the Chairperson of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission and has been a leader in our community for decades.

Originally featured in-print by Hudson Valley One, 8/29/19

DA hopeful Clegg: Bail reform needed right now

How long will we continue to put innocent people in jail? As a public defender, I represented people who were poor. In the hundreds of cases I handled, the Assistant District Attorney would too often ask the court to set bail beyond my client’s reach. I would tell the court that it was impossible for my client to pay that much, and point out that the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution explicitly states that “excessive bail shall not be required.” Most times, the judge deferred to the DA’s recommendation and my client was taken to jail without being found guilty of anything.

Every day in this county, legally innocent people are behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.

According to our sheriff, Juan Figueroa, on average, 60% of the jail population is made up of people held on bail.

As long as money is a condition of pretrial release, poor and working-class people will remain behind bars while those who are wealthy go home regardless of the likelihood of innocence or guilt. This is a fundamental injustice.

The harms of unaffordable cash bail are unequivocal: people lose their jobs, homes and families while detained. Even worse, innocent people sometimes plead guilty just to get out of jail. This is how it works. After spending days or weeks in jail, you — an innocent defendant — are brought back to court and offered the chance to plead guilty for “time served.” You have the option to plead and go free or go back to jail and wait for trial. What choice would you make?

A New York Civil Liberties Union study found that between 2010 and 2014 there were 6,344 pretrial detainees held in the Ulster County Jail. According to the study, over 55 percent of all pretrial detainees who spent time in the Ulster County Jail after bail was set were charged with only misdemeanors or violations. The most common charges were Harassment in the Second Degree, Disorderly Conduct and Trespass. The maximum fine for these violations is $250. Approximately 40 percent of the people charged with these violations had bail set higher than the maximum penalty.

Another unseemly side of our cash bail system is the for-profit bail industry. Some defendants are able to purchase their freedom with bail bonds, which require non-refundable premiums of 10 percent or more. 

The for-profit bail industry, comprised of bail bondsmen and insurance companies that underwrite and nationally collect revenues of over $2 billion a year, is a tax on the poor.

The purpose of bail is to ensure the appearance of a defendant in court, not to exact punishment before conviction. The cash bail reforms enacted by our state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Cuomo will not take effect until Jan. 1, 2020. This law has a mandatory release or release with non-monetary conditions for almost all violations, misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Our district attorney has enormous discretion to implement these changes today and immediately stop the injustices that occur under the cash bail system. The U.S. Supreme Court says the prosecutor’s interest in a criminal case is “that justice be done.” Let it be done today, not six months from now. The DA should start by reviewing the cases of every defendant currently held on bail in the Ulster County Jail and release them from pretrial detention unless they pose a risk to public safety.

No doubt some people need to be in jail, but no one should languish behind bars, waiting for due process, simply because they are poor.

David Clegg is an attorney, ordained minister and member of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission. He is the Democratic Candidate for Ulster County district attorney in this fall’s election.

Originally published online and in-print Hudson Valley One on 7/12/19