The pandemic has gotten in the way of everything his office does, Ulster County district attorney David Clegg says. It may take two years before the DA’s office can return to a normal caseload. “We’re praying Covid slows down very quickly, and we get all the work done we need to do,” Clegg said during a virtual Q&A webinar on Thursday hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Valley and the American Association of University Women.
In 2020 the pandemic shut courts and grand-jury proceedings while between 70 and 100 new cases came into his office every week. “When I entered office the average assistant DA caseload was 30 to 40 cases,” Clegg said. “Right now it’s well over 100 cases.”
The DA’s office is now fully staffed after a year-long hiring freeze prevented the office from hiring new ADAs.
There continues to be only one courtroom in the Ulster County Courthouse that allows for adequate social distancing during the ongoing pandemic. And that has to be shared with the civil side.
“We can do maybe one maybe two trials a month,” Clegg said.
Discovery law doubles workload
During the early days of the pandemic, his office was also tackling a state law requiring prosecutors to share all evidence within 20 days of the defendant’s arraignment. He estimates the new law doubled the amount of work for his ADAs, who were also struggling with unprecedented amounts of evidence from body cameras, car cameras and smartphones.
With the cooperation fo the county legislature, he was able to add adding a discovery records office staffed by seven individuals, including a new ADA and a paralegal who handle records management and video recording. The office cooperates with 14 different law enforcement agencies, the sheriff’s office and the state police.
Clegg estimates the DA’s office has provided over 20 terabytes of information through digital channels.
Helping find other paths
An intimate partner violence program in the City of Kingston and now the Town of Saugerties will soon be expanded to the towns of Ulster and New Paltz and eventually the sheriff’s office. This program has not only prevented recidivism, Clegg said, but has also provided interventions against harmful behavior. Prosecutors only resort to punishment when the offender continue down the path of violence.
Ulster County has received $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to support and expand this program.
A restorative justice program run by the county probation department and Family of Woodstock targets at-risk youth committing mostly low-level crimes. Clegg reports the program is showing promise in helping both perpetrators and victims get through the trauma crime causes. The collaborative effort with the sheriff’s office offers services that help the offender to move in a positive direction.
Tackling the opioid crisis
Clegg said the sheriff’s Opioid Response As County Law Enforcement (ORACLE) program, which seeks to tackle Ulster County’s serious drug and overdose problem.
Clegg’s office is prosecuting dealers who lace drugs with fentanyl to the fullest extent of the law, including the first-ever case where a dealer was prosecuted for manslaughter in an overdose that killed the victim.
Fentanyl has killed too many people, Clegg said. “It’s badly managed by drug dealers and is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin,” he said. “If they add a fingertip, it’s enough to kill.”
Another dealer is in state prison on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in connection with an overdose, he said.
Options other than jail
Prosecutors are looking for other options than jail sentences for those suffering from substance-use disorders. “We want to help addicts, not just throw them in jail and hope when they got out they learned their lesson,” Clegg said. “Drug court is a long-term process,” Clegg said. “They might be there well more than a year going through that court.”
The extra time allows addicts to strengthen their community ties through peers and people working to rehabilitate them.
“Judge Larry Ball runs it,” Clegg said. “He’s very dedicated, but also stern and compassionate.”