While David Clegg doesn’t believe Ulster County has a major gang problem, gangs and gun violence still represent a serious issue. The Ulster County district attorney estimates that about 60 percent of serious crime in Ulster County has some sort of gang involvement.
Clegg fielded a number of questions from the public webinar held Thursday by the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Valley and the American Association of University Women on Zoom. Addressing about 40 participants, Clegg discussed a recent meeting with New York State attorney general Letitia James. The focus was on the number of gang-involved people coming up from the Bronx or Brooklyn.
He said the cases often involve drug deals. “Guns and drugs go together,” Clegg said. They all too often end in gun violence.
“There are too many guns out there,” There are twelve-to-14-year-old young adults with guns. “I don’t have the answer, but it’s scary.”
Prosecutors are taking the situation very seriously. “There have been some people who ended up with a ten-year prison sentence after being caught on three different occasions with a loaded gun,” Clegg said. “We have to let people know that’s not acceptable behavior, and leads to damage.”
Clegg said his office wants to do everything it can do to reach out to at-risk youth. He hopes his office can spread the word out into high schools and let people know how serious the trouble they get into can be.
Initiatives in Ulster County include a “SNUG” neighborhood violence prevention program in partnership with the Midtown-based substance-use treatment center Samadhi. The program reaches out to at-risk youth, some with possible gang involvement.
“We have to let kids know flashing a gun is a very serious crime,” Clegg said.
Gang affiliates are from New York City and traffickers from Patterson, New Jersey. He said the DA’s office put away a man from Patterson who sold fentanyl to a victim who then overdosed. His office has also dealt with gang members from Springfield, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
“I can’t give enough credit to the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team,” he said. “URGENT is having a great deal of success.”
Changes in bail reform
While some have laid the blame for an uptick in crime on bail-reform legislation that went into effect in early 2020, Clegg said he believes bail reform has worked overall. It’s really worked keeping people out of jail who would go to jail for 20, 30 or 60 days simply because they could not afford bail. He had seen this all too often in his former role as a public defender.
But he admitted the original law went a bit too far. He has spoken to State Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart Cousins and State Assembly speaker Carl Heastie about some changes. “We were seeing bad people take advantage of it,” Clegg said. “We were seeing people commit burglary after burglary.”
That was corrected. “When someone has a charge pending, and they commit another felony, they can be put in jail.”
Clegg said his office was careful about requesting bail. “My office doesn’t request bail unless we think there’s a public-safety risk,” he said. “We’re not looking to jail someone awaiting [trial on] a non-violent crime.”
Clegg was asked whether law-enforcement officials knew of any presence of violent far-right extremist groups such as Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. He said he didn’t have a doubt they were here, but so far officials haven’t heard of threats or seen any violence from them.
Though the number of murders in the county declined in 2021 from a big spike in 2020, two recent murders have cast a shadow over the decline. The toughest case he’s worked as DA involved gun violence, Clegg said. That case was the December 2020 shooting death of twelve-year-old D’Janeira Mason of Kingston.
“I went to the scene of the murder, and saw the girl was shot in the head,” he said. “I decided to handle that case from the grand jury to conviction. Those are things that stay with you.”