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DA Candidates Debate Staffing Size Issues

The two candidates running for district attorney for Chautauqua County have differing views on the staffing size level and if there are better ways for the office to be more effective.

During a private debate with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal, District Attorney Patrick Swanson and challenger Jason Schmidt were asked “Is staffing in the DA’s office where it needs to be and how could current resources best be utilized?”

Currently the district attorney’s office has 12 1/2 staff members. Swanson said he believes it should be larger, although he’s been able to increase the size of his office during his tenure.

“Settling into this job as the acting DA (in 2016) … we had a pretty robust part-time staff that primarily focused on their private practice. That’s what part-timers do,” explained Swanson.

When the part-timers left, Swanson was able to replace them with full-time staff members. “Now you have somebody in the office regularly. If you need coverage of something, you have it, and we are finally able to get a prosecutor to our staff role this year,” he said.

Still, Swanson says his staff has the highest case load and felony case load in the state. “In my discussion with colleagues around the state, and talking to them where they sit on this schedule, there was no one that was confident we were able to do what we’re supposed to do with the numbers we have,” he said.

In order to make the best use of the current staff, Swanson said he has resourced and reassigned a number of cases. “We designated one prosecutor to handle felony drug arrests countywide,” Swanson said.

They also have a dedicated prosecutor for sex crimes, a domestic violence prosecutor who is paid by a grant, and have one prosecutor for Jamestown felonies.

For 2021, Swanson said he did not ask for a staffing increase, because he knows of the impact COVID-19 has had on the county budget. Still, he believes they need more staff. “If I had 18 (prosecutors), we would be able to do a lot more of the things we aren’t able to do now,” he said.

Schmidt, meanwhile, believes the incumbent is making too many excuses. “I think what Mr. Swanson is doing is he’s identified a problem which doesn’t exist,” he said.

Schmidt noted that in 2012, when former District Attorney David Foley ran the office with a part-time staff, the office had a 67% felony prosecution rate of 958 felony arrests. In 2019, the felony arrests increased to 1,080 but the prosecution rate dropped to 23%. “We’re really not that far off from where we are now with a part-time office, with less staff,” he said. “Your (prosecution) numbers have gone down … but your budget has gone up.”

Schmidt doesn’t think the legislature will give the DA’s office. Instead, he believes the office needs to make more efficient use of its resources. “In the office, what would I do? I’d create trial teams amongst the prosecutors so we all work together,” he said. “We put our best foot forward and run these trials and get convictions because there is a deterrence effect here and it helps to turn around this culture, this atmosphere of constantly losing and making excuses and pretending that it’s somebody else’s fault, it’s a staffing issue, (and/or) we’re overwhelmed.”

Other suggestions he had included having prosecutors at arraignments which would help deal with cases sooner, make sure prosecutors are working with police at their stations, and bringing in retired staff. “Be more creative with less resources. We can do this,” he said.

Swanson took issue with a number of Schmidt’s suggestions. He said their felony prosecution rate is higher than most of the state, he believes there are confidentially issues with using retired staff, and he said he can’t staff arraignments as easily as the county’s Public Defender’s Office because their budget is significantly larger than the DA’s budget.

“It sounds great, but you have 12 1/2 lawyers,” he said. “You want them to go to arraignments? Those happen at night, weekends. You’re not going to have lawyers that want to work for you.”

Swanson applauded his staff’s efforts. “We’re doing incredible work, considering what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We do better than the state average on almost every metric that you want to measure a prosecutor’s office by.”

Schmidt responded by saying he respects the current staff, but insists there are “creative approaches that can utilize the existing money.”

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