Ulster County DA Candidates Lay Out Their Stances

Oct 25, 2019

Among the issues they disagree about, the candidates for Ulster County district attorney have different visions for carrying out criminal justice reform.

Republican chief assistant district attorney Michael Kavanagh is seeking to succeed his boss, Republican Holley Carnright, who is retiring.

“There’s no way it can be the same with the reforms that are coming. We’re going to have to handle things completely different from the prosecutorial level. That being said, the ideas of how the office should be run and how it’s been run, I think Holley’s been a terrific boss. He’s been an asset to this community. I would like to honor a lot of the principles that he has implemented, and I have as well, as being his chief and being in that office for eight years, it’ll be a continuation of what we as an office have been doing,” says Kavanagh. “We’ll make some changes. I think one of the things that we could do better is outreach, and I would like to see that happen. I think that there’s a gap in our office’s communication with local communities, and I think we should probably be out there, probably? we definitely should be out there more. We should be more accessible. And I think that type of communication will do our job more effectively. We’ll be able to identify problems in certain communities and respond to them specifically. I think community policing is a really good idea. I would like to see more of that.”

Democrat Dave Clegg

“I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for 40 years. I’ve handled really important big cases throughout the country, from Nebraska to New York, from Buffalo to Manhattan. I’ve spent nine years as a public defender, and it’s really important to come from that side right now when we want to reform our criminal justice system, when we want to reform our bail system, when we want to reform our discovery system,” Clegg says. “Those are the ways that I’ve operated my whole career is trying to find a way to rehabilitate a client.”

Kavanagh weighs in on statewide bail reforms that take effect in January.

“I am a proponent of responsible bail reform. I think bail reform is a good thing in some aspects,” says Kavanagh. “However, this bill went way too far. Some of the crimes that are excluded from cash bail I don’t think should have been. I think it creates a dangerous situation for the community,”

“Like what?” asks Dunne.

“Burglary in the second degree, robbery in the second degree, two violent felonies,” says Kavanagh.

And he thinks excluding vehicular manslaughter from cash bail is overreaching.

“That being said, I do understand that there are certain crimes where bail is set and should not be,” Kavanagh says. “And so I’m fine, again, with responsible bail reform as long as it doesn’t compromise the safety of the community.”

Here’s Clegg:

“I was in favor of a dangerousness consideration for that legislation, which they didn’t put in, and I understand why. They probably weren’t sure it would be used in good faith. Of course, I would use it in good faith. The bail system is a poor tax on most people. For many, many years, I’ve seen people go to jail because they can’t afford $100 in bail, spend a month or two months in jail on a low-level crime that shouldn’t have had any jail time. We spend $5,000-to-$10,000 incarcerating them because they couldn’t pay $100. Does that make any sense? It does not,” Clegg says. “For 95 percent of the cases that are going to go through, bail reform is right. For those cases where there is some public safety issue, I would like the dangerousness consideration but, under the statute, there are protections that we can use. There’s electronic monitoring, there’s supervision for the person who’s out, non-monetary conditions. We can make this work. It’s my intention to make it work. And I’m going to do everything I can to protect the public at the same time.”

Kavanagh says electronic monitoring would place an unfunded mandate on the county.

Both candidates view tackling the opioid crisis as a priority. Here’s Clegg:

“I think we’re going to be very close, me and the sheriff. Juan Figueroa is doing the same work that I think should be done, which is he’s starting an opioid project where they’re picking people up, they’re using peer advocates to bring along when they find somebody who’s overdosed, thy find somebody who’s in possession and addicted,” says Clegg. “That’s the approach that I want to take when I get in office, so we’re going to work side by side. I think we’re all on the same page, and it’s a move forward to address the opioid issues. The mental health issues are something we have to work on. I need the support of Pat Ryan as the county executive to work on that also.” 

Kavanagh says the DA’s office has been doing a lot to combat the opioid epidemic, including providing education in schools. And he serves on two related task forces, including Ryan’s county opioid task force.

“We’re making strides. We have a long way to go, but we haven’t been just sitting back,” says Kavanagh. “And drug court is a huge thing. I’m on the team that’s putting, implementing opioid court as well. And I hope we get that started up as soon as possible.”

“Is that from, did you get that idea from any surrounding communities?” Dunne asks.

“I think it started, yes, I think it started in Buffalo. And I’d love to tell you I had the idea, no. Buffalo, I believe, was the first one to implement opioid court,” says Kavanagh. “It’s been talked about here for a while. And now we’re finally going to launch it. I don’t know when. I think everything, all the groundwork’s been laid. It’s just a matter of getting it in place. And I think, quite frankly, with the reforms that are coming, it’s going to make it tough.”

He says cash bail reform will do away with a mechanism to secure services.

“Bail, not for punishment but to get somebody incarcerated to hit rock-bottom so that they can receive services immediately, not to languish in jail for six months and then, oh, okay, something, a bed’s open, now you can go,” Kavanagh says. “We need services in place now, and we don’t have them.”

Clegg wants to bring community justice to the D.A.’s office.

“The other side of what I bring to the table is leadership in the community for over three decades in important positions throughout our county, whether it be the Board of Health, the Human Right Commission, working with community agencies like Family of Woodstock, all of that can be used to support our justice system,” Clegg says. “When we do what we call diversion programs, you need the support of the community to work with people, you need the follow up of the community. All that need to be put in place, and I say the district attorney has to be the leader in the community in justice, and that’s what I intend to be.”

Clegg has another idea.

“I also think that we can, we can sue, not sue, that we can bring to justice people who are polluters, corporate polluters who are out there dumping toxic waste. There was an environmental activism group that was calling on district attorneys to become involved in it. The criminal sanctions sometimes are needed to stop major polluters, people who are dumping toxic water, ruining our water, our air and our land,” Clegg says. “If you have a criminal possibility there, they may not be so inclined to be dumping toxic waste. And we can send a message in Ulster County that if you come here and you dump toxic waste, I’m going to be looking at you as a D.A.”

In addition to district attorney, there are also races for Ulster County executive and county comptroller.