BY PAUL WOLF, ESQ.
DA’s Should Be Elected by Public and Not Through Political Deals
In the upcoming election, the position of District Attorney will be on the ballot in Erie and Niagara county. Through a back room deal with political party chairs, former Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita became a Supreme Court Judge creating a vacancy.
Niagara County District Attorney Michael Violante resigned his position after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him by a female prosecutor, creating a vacancy.
In 2012, Frank Sedita won election as Erie County District Attorney without any opposition. The support of political party bosses allowed Sedita to run as the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Working Family candidate, making voters irrelevant to the process.
Before Sedita, the same party boss-controlled process took place when Frank Clark ran for Erie County District Attorney with the support of all party chairs in 2000 and 2004. Niagara County DA Michael Violanti in 2015 also ran with the support of all party chairs. It appears that the stars are lining up for Caroline A. Wojtaszek to be the agreed upon party boss supported candidate in Niagara County this year. It seems that DA’s are usually selected through a coronation process by party bosses and not through competitive elections decided by voters.
Prosecutors Have Tremendous Power
There is an old saying that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich because of the power prosecutors have. In our criminal justice system the most powerful player is not the police or a judge as many people think. The most powerful position in our criminal justice system is the prosecutor. Our own local U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (1892 -1954) stated the following about prosecutors:
“The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous. He can have citizens investigated… The prosecutor can order arrests, present cases to the grand jury in secret session, and on the basis of his one-sided presentation of the facts, can cause the citizen to be indicted and held for trial. ….If he obtains a conviction, the prosecutor can still make recommendations as to sentence, as to whether the prisoner should get probation or a suspended sentence, and after he is put away, as to whether he is a fit subject for parole. While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.”
That is a lot of power for political party bosses to determine by selecting a person through a coronation instead of an election.
An Open File Policy is Needed
In a civil auto accident case both sides receive all information regarding the incident. In a criminal case with someone facing many years in prison, prosecutors are allowed to withhold information from the defense until the trial starts, which does not provide sufficient time to mount an adequate defense.
Although the law gives prosecutors the ability to withhold information that does not mean that they have to. Prosecutors across New York State in the interest of fairness allow defense attorneys to obtain all information through an “open file policy”. District Attorneys in Erie and Niagara County
have not supported an “open file policy”. The criminal justice system needs transparency and fairness. And adopting an “open file policy” would be an important step forward.
Kids Should Not Be Prosecuted as Adults
Only two states in the nation prosecute 16 and 17 year olds as adults, North Carolina and New York. Numerous studies have been done on how teenage brains are not fully developed. Teenagers do not rationally think through their actions and the consequences that can result. Teenagers who commit crimes need to be addressed but their cases should be handled as juveniles in Family Court.
While a District Attorney has the option of prosecuting a teenager as an adult they do not have to do so.
Alternatives to Incarceration
The war on drugs has been an absolute failure. Prosecuting and sending to pritson non-violent drug offenders is not a wise or cost effective use of taxpayer resources. Communities around the country are utilizing creative programs that are an alternative to incarceration.
We need people willing to challenge the party bosses to step forward and run for office as a reform minded District Attorney candidate in Erie and Niagara County. Focusing on such an effort by Bernie Sanders supporters is a great way to bring the national Sanders revolution to a local level.