Minority Reporter asked its readers what was important to them in the election for Monroe County district attorney. Republican incumbent Sandra Doorley and Democratic challenger Shani Curry Mitchell responded. Their answers have been edited for space.
What is the most important challenge facing the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office and how will you address that challenge?
Doorley: One of the greatest challenges facing our entire community right now is the opioid and addiction epidemic plaguing the country. Specifically, in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, the greatest challenge is the implementation of the New York State Criminal Justice Reform beginning on January 1, 2020. Since April, I have worked with my bureau chiefs, law enforcement partners and the community organizations we rely on for evidence. I have given presentations to victim advocate groups and police departments to ensure that not just the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, but every partner in the criminal justice system will seamlessly implement these new laws.
Mitchell: Rebuilding trust with the community we serve. Many members of the community do not believe that the District Attorney’s office truly represents all citizens of Monroe County, while protecting the rights of the accused. It is important that the office provides victim services and assistance that truly addresses the needs of all victims and provides a fair, just, and balanced disposition of cases. I will ensure that victim advocates are representative of the community they serve, as well as trained and equipped to assist all differently abled victims in Monroe County. While we will work every day to keep Monroe safe, I know that we can do this while ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected and respected.
There clearly are inequities in the justice system for Latino and African-American males. How will you examine this issue and what will you do to address it?
Doorley: At the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, we promote and offer Continuing Legal Education that is mandatory for all of our assistant district attorneys and often times the inequities in the justice system are addressed. We are offering a training titled “Diversity, Inclusion and Elimination of Bias.” We are also in the process of working with Measures for Justice, an organization that gathers criminal justice data and makes it more accessible and transparent to the general public, which will give an accurate picture of the overall justice system.
Mitchell: I will conduct an internal audit of pending cases to obtain an understanding of the breadth and depth of cases. My administration will begin to record statistics by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability concerning the disposition of cases, from arrests to prosecution to sentencing. This is the only way we can uncover any inequities within our office. In addition, we will conduct consistent implicit bias training with our assistant district attorneys and staff to address any issues of bias that occurs when disposing cases.
With the impending bill that proposes to only ticket drug crimes, what can the DA’s office do in areas where outdoor drug sales are rampant to ensure public safety and decrease drug use and sales?
Doorley: With our active role and leadership in the Monroe County Heroin Task Force and partnership with Greater Rochester Area Narcotics Enforcement Team, we must prioritize our long-term narcotics investigation to help remove the supply of drugs from our community. From a preventive side, we are also prioritizing addiction recovery services through Project HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention Education) and spreading awareness to help the addiction epidemic in the city of Rochester and all of Monroe County.
Mitchell: … Offenders who have chosen to engage in this illegal activity believe that that they have no other options for providing for themselves and their families. Their acts are a result of a deeper systemic problem. Therefore, we cannot hope to win this fight by simply punishing and incarcerating to the greatest degree possible. My administration will work with community organizations and businesses to provide alternatives to incarceration to street level drug sale offenders, including diversion and treatment for those suffering from addiction to both steer these individuals away from crime and reduce demand for illegal drugs. However, a more formal disposition will be necessary for those reluctant to cease their illegal activity or those who refuse to adhere to the terms of diversion programs.
Under the bail reform law that takes effect in January, what are the DA’s options for assessing who should remain in custody and how will you use those options to keep those accused individuals in custody?
Doorley: Unfortunately, our options for who will remain in custody are limited. All non-qualifying offenses will not have an opportunity for bail. The remaining qualifying offenses that are eligible for bail are primarily violent felonies and domestic violence charges. In these cases, we will examine the defendant’s history and ties to the community before making our bail recommendations. At the end of the day, it is up to the discretion of the court to set bail on the qualifying offenses.
Mitchell: Under the new law, bail is eliminated for most misdemeanors except sex offenses and violating an order of protection; and for most non-violent felonies. Violent felonies are still generally subject to bail. When bail is permissible, assistant district attorneys can make recommendations to the judge. The prosecutor will review the arrestee’s previous experience with returning to court, their ability to pay, their current ability to return to court, and any threat to the victim. Assistant district attorneys will review the facts of their case, speak with victims … and then make a custody recommendation to the judge. The options range from release on own recognizance, release to pretrial services, ankle monitoring and cash bail.
Bail reform happened because too often low income people, especially people of color, were held on bail for minor charges for extended periods of time, often losing their jobs, homes and community supports as a result.
How does, or how could, the DA’s office partner with social services to address the socio-economic factors that may have led to a defendant’s alleged crime?
Doorley: Since becoming the District Attorney in 2012, I have been a huge proponent of diversion courts. In my time, I have helped to establish and promote Gun Crimes Part, Opioid Stabilization Part and Human Trafficking Court. We also have Veterans Court, Mental Health Court and various Drug Courts. Once a defendant comes into the criminal justice system, diversion parts help to identify the root cause of the defendant’s situation that led to his or her alleged crimes. It is during this time that the District Attorney’s Office will work with a variety of social services to address the factors that surrounded the defendant and alleged charges.
Mitchell: I plan to hire a social worker for my staff to craft individualized plans for low-level nonviolent offenders. These plans will address the issues that cause these offenders to offend, i.e. poverty, drug addiction, mental health issues, and a lack of education. The social worker will partner with various community organizations to stop the revolving door of offending to create true safety in Monroe County.
What impact do police-community relations have on services provided by the Monroe County District Attorney’s office?
Doorley: Police-community relations are incredibly important in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office. If we do not have cooperating victims and witnesses who trust law enforcement, we cannot successfully prosecute criminals spreading violence in our community. I believe the Rochester Police Department does a great job being out in our community at neighborhood and family events. The District Attorney’s Office joins our local law enforcement at community fairs such as Project TIPS (Trust, Information, Programs Services) where we foster relationships and build trust in high-crime areas.
Mitchell: The Monroe County District Attorney’s Office needs the trust of the community to properly and accurately prosecute cases. The police are the first to have contact with the community that we serve. My office will support the relationship between the police and community by attending community association meetings to foster a partnership amongst law enforcement and the community, and by working with community groups to identify concerns about the police, and work with our police departments to address those concerns.
What are your top three strategies for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system in Monroe County?
Doorley: First is constant and transparent communication with all partners in the criminal justice system. Come January 1, 2020, our entire criminal justice system will be completely different. It is going to take honest and frequent communication with our police partners, our crime lab, medical examiner’s office, defense attorneys and even judges to ensure a smooth, effective and speedy trial process. Second, I plan to further expand the Economic Crimes Bureau that I spearheaded upon taking office in 2012. This bureau will take a deeper and more extensive role in white collar and public integrity investigations. Third is an initiative I am very proud of, Project HOPE. Project HOPE is a post-arrest, pre-arraignment diversion program for low-level drug offenders. This program offers treatment opportunities in which a treatment provider determines if the client ‘meaningfully engages’ in treatment. If after 30 days the client meaningfully engages, he or she will never have to appear in a courtroom. This program requires further law enforcement training and expansion to have a real effect in our criminal justice system and I look forward to ensuring its success.
Mitchell: My first strategy is to address the manner in which we prosecute low level nonviolent offenders. Traditionally, many prosecutors will seek to charge at the highest possible level, with the goal of winning the longest possible sentence. That doesn’t always best serve the community or the taxpayers. We need to assess whether diversion may be a better alternative.
Next, I want to address the manner in which charges are decided and drafted upon arrest. Currently, police officers draft the accusatory documents and determine the appropriate charges upon arrest. However, police are not lawyers and should rely upon assistant district attorneys to draft these legal documents. Thus, our office would assume the responsibility of consulting with officers upon arrest and determining the appropriate charges and documents to be filed with the courts. This will allow police officers to return to patrol in a more timely manner.
Lastly, I will work to make our office paperless. This will save money for our County and allow us to meet the new discovery law requirements in a more efficient and timely manner.