Six months after he lost the bruising Democratic congressional primary to Antonio Delgado, Kingston attorney Dave Clegg is back on the campaign trail — this time seeking to become Ulster County’s next district attorney. At a campaign kick-off event on Saturday, Clegg stood on the steps of the Ulster County Courthouse in Uptown Kingston and outlined a bold vision for a criminal justice system built around concepts of “restorative justice” that works to unwind a previous generation’s focus on punishment and prison.
Clegg announced his run flanked by fellow Democratic luminaries, including Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, County Executive Mike Hein, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and county Human Rights Commissioner the Rev. Evelyn Clarke.
“It’s time to bring our criminal justice system here in Ulster County into the 21st century,” said Clegg, addressing a crowd of a few dozen supporters who braved the afternoon’s chilly weather. “It is time to stop the scourge of mass incarceration in this country. It’s time we devote and spend more resources to saving at-risk children than we do incarcerating them.”
Clegg, 66, is a trial attorney who’s been practicing in Ulster County since the 1980s. During his congressional campaign, Clegg touted his work taking on large corporations on behalf of consumers, litigating against polluters and defending the civil rights of members of the Lakota Sioux nation.
In addition to his legal work, Clegg has been deeply involved in charitable work in Ulster County. Over the years he has served on the board of Family of Woodstock, where he helped start the county’s first homeless shelter, and the Caring Hands soup kitchen in Midtown Kingston. Clegg holds a master’s degree in divinity from Yale and is an ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church.
Clegg has also volunteered as a youth basketball coach and served as chairman of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission. On the human rights commission, Clegg helped develop a new disciplinary policy focused on restorative justice — an approach that focuses on rehabilitation through reconciliation with the victim and the community — rather than punishment. The policy is intended to address what activists call the “school to prison pipeline” that they say disproportionately impacts black youth.
“Dave championed the case for youth,” said Clarke at the campaign kick-off. “He challenged the systemic and institutionalized racism in our schools.”
Discussing his vision for progressive criminal justice reform, Clegg said the district attorney’s office could play a powerful role by, for example, directing addicts into treatment instead of jail. Clegg also called for stronger rehabilitation and re-entry programs for convicts to prevent recidivism and cut costs associated with long-term incarceration.
“We have to stop recidivism,” said Clegg. “But we don’t do it by throwing away the key on people. We do it by rehabilitation.”
Along with his call for progressive criminal justice reform, Clegg pledged a more traditional approach to violent crime. Clegg told the crowd that as a youth he had survived a near-fatal stabbing and robbery and he empathized with the trauma and fear felt by victims of violent crime.
“I’m going to make sure that those who commit violent crime, those who commit harm to people are going to be held accountable,” said Clegg. “I will make sure that they are prosecuted, convicted and punished.”
Incumbent District Attorney Holley Carnright declined to comment this week on whether he will seek another four year term in office. Carnright has held the post since 2009. During his tenure he helped found the countywide Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT) and created new initiatives to more effectively prosecute domestic violence cases. Carnright, a Republican, has also expressed concerns about the potential impact of progressives-backed legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility and legalize marijuana for adult use.