Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick has not one, but two opponents going into this year’s election. The seven-term republican is being challenged by defense attorney and democrat Chuck Keller, and attorney Gary Lavine on the Conservative Party line.
They answered a wide range of questions at a recent forum hosted by the CNY chapter of the NYCLU.
DA Bill Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t criminalize poverty, and has urged judges not to set nominal bail.
"I have a chief assistant DA that every single week looks through the bail list and mind you, the DA only makes a recommendation. The defense lawyer can make a recommendation as well. It's the judges that set bail in this county and what the chief assistant does is look for bails where there's really no purpose to it. A kid being held on $100 bail when he may have stole $5 worth of something. That's, that's idiotic. I've never accepted it and I've done everything I can to put a stop to it. Not all the judges get the message."
Fitzpatrick DOES take issue with the new relaxed STATE bail reform laws to take effect January first, which he says aren’t good for public safety. Chuck Keller accuses Fitzpatrick of not knowing what his assistant DA’s do in court.
"I've been doing this for 20 years. I have had thousands of cases. I have been in court hundreds of times. I've had cases left and right where a person misses a court date, has called me up and said, I'm running late. What happens? His assistants routinely ask for cash bail on those people just because they're running late. The default position of the current office is let's hold everybody in. That cannot be the default."
Keller says the exploding jail population is proof that too many people are being held on bail. Conservative Gary Lavine says the DA's offices here and statewide are highly bureaucratized, and need to benchmark best practices.
"There's no question that the bail system was not working, isn't working and the experiments should should be conducted after a period. I would recommend a year of experience. Then the legislature and the governor should pay very close heed to the practical results of the experiment and adjust accordingly. But the changes, the reform should be based upon empirical data, not ideological guesswork."
Lavine says he has confidence in the judiciary in the county, and would be wary of taking away from judges to determine bail.
How might the Onondaga County District Attorney monitor racial disparities, and correct any racial bias that might factor into reaching plea deals with defendants? That was one of the questions posed at the forum to the three candidates seeking arguably the most powerful office in the county. Challengers Gary Lavine and Chuck Keller forced incumbent DA Bill Fitzpatrick to defend is record.
Fitzpatrick says state statistics show there is no disparity between sentences for people of color versus white people in Onondaga County. Democrat and defense attorney Chuck Keller says he sees racial bias every day in court, though he didn’t accuse anyone in the DA’s office of being racist.
"Pull all the statistics you want, but perception becomes reality. The perception in our community is that if you are a person of color and you or you are a person without means, you do not get the same justice as other people. That is a perception and perception becomes reality. I will work with every fiber of my being to change that perception."
Fitzpatrick acknowledged there is racial disparity the county system, and works every day trying to eliminate it. At the same time, he says he can’t control a judge’s sentences.
"When people come into my office and when they come in front of my assistant DA's, they're going to get a fair shake based on what they did on their background, the advocacy of the lawyer and the circumstances of the crime. Because the overwhelming majority of African American people that I deal with are the families of homicide victims and I want them to have justice too."
Attorney and Conservative candidate Gary Lavine repeated his claim that the office is completely bureaucratized, which might have the effect of increasing the discretion of prosecutors in a perverse way.
"It is important that the tone be set at the top of integrity, fair mindedness, even handedness, dispassionate evaluation of the cases and that the entire organization is imbued with a sensitivity about these issues on a continuous basis."
Incidents of police misconduct continue to dominate national and local headlines, and it came up at the forum from an audience member. Where do incumbent Bill Fitzpatrick and challengers Chuck Keller and Gary Lavine stand on holding police accountable for bad behavior?
Attorney and Conservative candidate Gary Lavine pointed out that it’s probably unprecedented that a race for DA includes three candidates whose fathers were cops. He says the discretion available to an officer on the street demands mature judgment, and the DA should be involved in the hiring process.
"The district attorney must importune, cajole, and be vigilant about the intake of officers into law enforcement units. They're training the internal investigatory capability, the internal disciplinary process that can take minor or incipient bad behavior and stop it right there."
Lavine says it’s indisputable that officers be held accountable and punished for wrongdoing. Defense attorney and democrat Chuck Keller says it’s also important that the DA not use the office for baseless witch-hunts.
"The public needs to believe that the police are there to help and protect them and not fear that. On the other side of that coin is that the police have to understand if they cross over the line, if they engage in unlawful behavior, if they behave inappropriately, then they have to be accountable as well. It can't just be one justice system for those of us who don't wear badges and another one who does."
Keller says he’ll treat officers the same as everyone else…with fairness, compassion, and justice. When it comes to officer involved shootings, DA Bill Fitzpatrick says by state law, cases involving an unarmed suspect automatically go before the state attorney general. If the suspect is armed, he says he follows a specific process that’s proven to work.
"I put every one of those cases, regardless of how obvious the evidence may seem, to an impartial of 23 citizens. I bring in outside use of force experts. I have them testify. Once the grand jury makes a decision, I then bring in the family of the deceased and I go over the evidence in a meticulous fashion with that family."
After that, Fitzpatrick says the findings are made public. Unfortunately, he says his office has had to go through that process about five times in the past 10 years.