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DA Candidates Discuss Criminal Justice Reform Measures

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four part series of the candidates running for Chautauqua County District Attorney.

The two candidates running for district attorney for Chautauqua County have differing views on if the individual elected should be advocating for changes on a statewide level or focus work solely on the county.

During a private debate with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal, District Attorney Patrick Swanson and challenger Jason Schmidt were asked “What view on the criminal justice reform measures now that they have been in place for several months do you have? What, if any, changes might be needed?”

Schmidt said he is “not concerned” about the criminal justice reforms. “This isn’t something I am complaining about or whining about,” he said. “I view it that we have two good legislators — (Assemblyman) Andy Goodell and (state Sen.) George Borrello. They’re trying to deal with the bail reforms and trying to make some corrections to install back into the process what I refer to as judicial discretion.”

Schmidt noted that both prosecutors and defense attorneys need to follow the laws that are in place. “The fact of the matter is we have to live by the rules,” he said. “This is what we do all the time. We can’t complain about it. We just have to function and we have to keep moving forward.”

Swanson, however, believes its important for Chautauqua County’s elected district attorney to lobby on both the county and the state levels. “You have an obligation in this position to advocate for the office, which is what I do when I ask for staff, to advocate for criminal justice changes, because that’s your job,” he said. “Yes, you have to handle cases in Chautauqua County too, and I do that. I handle all the homicides.”

Swanson said there are parts of the state reforms that he supports and other parts he doesn’t. Bail reform, for example, he said is still problematic. “They need to give judges discretion,” he said.

He noted that gun violence is up 67 % statewide, and Swanson believes that is because of bail reform. “It’s up because drug dealers can’t get held in. Drug dealers get arraigned and released. And they go and they find the snitch and you have shootings,” he said. “It’s not a surprise to prosecutors that our gun crimes are going through the roof this year because of bail.”

Schmidt notes there is a philosophical difference between he and his opponent. “I honestly don’t agree with him in so many facets on what he discusses on what the job is – to advocate for policy changes,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s to get convictions.”

Swanson is a member of the Board of Directors District Attorney Association of New York. “I’m the youngest member on the board of directors. I was unanimously selected for that because people value my opinion,” he said.

Swanson has lobbied at a hearing in Buffalo for Borrello and gone to New York City to testify in front of the Senate Codes Committee. “To say that’s not my job, you don’t get it. You don’t get what my job is in saying that,” he said to Schmidt.

Schmidt, however continued to insist that the local district attorney needs to focus on Chautauqua County and its issues. “Where I disagree with Mr. Swanson so much is this idea that his job consists of leaving this county and advocating for changes and so forth. I wouldn’t do that. I’ll be the first to say that I wouldn’t want that board of director position. I wouldn’t take pride in that. I would take pride in going to the courtroom and prosecuting these cases and getting convictions. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

Schmidt continued to criticize Swanson for the county’s low conviction felony rate, which has dropped from 25.7%, the last year before Swanson was in office, to today, which is 17.4%. “For me, it’s not going outside the county, it’s focusing here on each of these cases. And it’s a philosophical difference between himself and myself.”

Regarding the statistics of felony prosecutions over the last four years, Swanson said they’re doing as good, if not better, than other counties statewide. “Our conviction (rate) is better than the state average,” he said. “It’s better than Ulster County, Schenectady County, Rensselaer County, Niagara County, Erie County. It’s better than them.”

Swanson also said the winner of this district needs the help of the District Attorney Association. “He could win this and if he does, is he going to turn his back on the people who support our profession? That’s frightening. You need the help of the association. You should be looking to them for advice and I do that regularly because it’s the smart thing to do.”

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