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Toughing it out for DA



Since the Nixon era begat the "modern 'get tough' movement" --- to use the Sentencing Project's term --- the criminal justice system has been rough on people.

A new Sentencing Project study says the US rate of incarceration in 2002 hit "a record high" of 702 inmates per hundred thousand population. Russia took second place, with 628 per hundred thousand. Germany was way down the list, at 91 per hundred thousand. But crime in the US has been going down, with an uptick during the recession. And only a quarter of the decline, says the Project, may have come from harsh incarceration policies.

Yet the public's fear of crime stays high. Police and prosecutors are today's media darlings. (Hasta la vista, Perry Mason for the defense.) Toughness, not fairness, makes the mass audience --- and potential voters --- happy.

The Monroe County District Attorney race is the local Ground Zero for this phenomenon.

Two major-party candidates are in this race. Republican-Conservative Ann Marie Taddeo, who was a local Family Court judge for more than a decade, and an assistant Monroe County DA before that; and current assistant DA Mike Green, a Democrat who's also running on his own Crime Prevention Party line. (Also, retired Rochester police officer and writer Ralph Boryszewski is running as an independent write-in. The run, says a campaign ad, is part of an effort "to strike a blow at the stranglehold that lawyers presently hold over the three branches of our government.")

In a campaign handout, Mike Green says he's "successfully prosecuted some of this county's toughest criminals." One of Green's TV ads starts with a boast that the candidate helped send a murderer to death row. And --- grafting a human touch onto the toughness --- Green's literature says he's "known throughout the community as a passionate advocate for victims of crimes."

"I've made a career of prosecuting violent felons... and putting some of them away for long periods of time," says Green, in person. He tempers the point, however, drawing distinctions between levels of threat to the community, as with the drug trade. "I think people bringing 10 kilos of cocaine onto our streets deserve harsh punishment," he says. "We've found that [even] the marijuana trade can be every bit as violent as the cocaine trade. Our focus right now needs to be on the violence."

On the demand side, Green says he favors alternatives to incarceration --- like Drug Court, where an offender's addiction can be addressed.

The Taddeo campaign did not return our calls for comment. But Taddeo's campaign literature talks tough in several respects.

For example, one brochure, noting that "crime devastates victims and destroys neighborhoods," promises the candidate will "provide the experience, honesty, and toughness necessary to protect victims and families." The brochure highlights an endorsement by Rochester Police Locust Club President Ron Evangelista, who often takes the hard line on policing issues.

Taddeo's acceptance of the Conservative endorsement is indicative, too. The Conservative Party of New York State's 2003 Legislative Program calls for ending parole "for all convicted felons," and for mandatory sentencing of those convicted "of a third independent felony" to life without parole. The party wants bail denied to accused violent felons, and it supports legislation to allow those who have committed multiple misdemeanors to be prosecuted as felons. There's also a demand that juveniles be tried as adults in cases of "heinous crimes."

The persona in Taddeo's ads seems at odds with her observed demeanor on the bench. In 1998, the Fund for Modern Courts, working through Church Women United's Task Force on Courts, issued Monroe County Court Monitors: Report on the Family Court. Taddeo, said one monitor, "creates a comfortable atmosphere" in her courtroom and "[exhibits] competence and authority while remaining compassionate." Monitors found Taddeo "bored and uninterested" during one proceeding and "a bit indifferent to the parties involved" in another.

In her campaign brochure, Taddeo offers a brisk "Six Point Plan": "improve the conviction rate," "reduce the murder rate," "stop career criminals," and so forth.

One of the six items has provoked special controversy. While calling for "a new 'Tough on Crime' strategy,'" she proposed the creation of "Neighborhood Protection Zones" on certain "crime-ridden streets." (That descriptive phrase obviously indicts low-income neighborhoods in the city of Rochester. But in a September news release, Taddeo says the strategy could be extended to "important community retail, commercial, and entertainment corridors --- the malls, Frontier Field, or the East End, for example.")

Under the proposal, persons committing crimes within the zones (misdemeanors as well as felonies) would face more aggressive prosecution, says a Taddeo news release. Moreover, it says, "the criminals responsible will not be offered plea bargain opportunities." The plan would be overseen by "a broad-based community review committee" including neighborhood residents, community leaders, police, and public officials." Locust Club President Evangelista is quoted as supporting the "innovative concept."

Critics, too, are weighing in. Scott Forsyth, counsel for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the Protection Zones could lead to "two systems of justice: One for people in a [targeted] neighborhood and one for people outside." The problem is reminiscent, he says, of what happened when Rochester police made selective stops and wrote-up masses of "field information forms" a few years back. "If you're a minority," he says, "it looks like and smells like racial profiling." He acknowledges that patterns of crime and complaints influence all of this, too.

Forsyth doesn't recall other jurisdictions where Protection Zones are contemplated or in use. But he says that US Attorney General John Ashcroft has proposed to limit plea bargains at the federal level --- and has elicited criticism for it.

"My instinct is, [the concept] is constitutional," says Mike Green. But he adds it could "violate civil rights" in some cases. "It's going to be discriminatory in the way it plays out," he says. It could appear, he says, to trivialize crimes committed outside the zones, while harming offenders without prior records within the zones. "In my mind, that's not justice," he says. The DA's responsibility, he says, "is to make appropriate decisions based on the facts of the case."

Well over to the right, writer-broadcaster Bob Lonsberry has voiced harsh criticism of the proposal. In a September 16 website column, Lonsberry says he's "all in favor of getting tough." But Taddeo's proposal, he says, "would spit in the face" of the concept of equal protection. "It would punish one set of criminals more than another, and protect one set of victims less than another."

According to Lonsberry, "the worst thing" about Taddeo's proposal is that by making punishment potentially lighter outside the zones, it "would drive crime into the relatively quiet Republican suburbs where her voters reside."

A numbers game is in play, too.

One of Taddeo's TV ads looks at the Monroe County DA's conviction rates in recent years. The camera pans over a data table of county conviction rates, focusing on the number 46 percent. The implication --- reinforced by a voiceover --- is that Green and his colleagues are letting half of all serious perps walk.

            Taddeo's arithmetic is "clearly misleading," counters Green. His office, he says, actually has had a 95 percent conviction rate over the past two years --- and points to recent New York State Felony Processing reports as confirmation. He says, too, that he secured 15 convictions in 16 homicide cases tried in 2001, and 29 convictions in 30 cases the following year.

Green explains that to determine a true conviction rate, one has to consider only those "cases where someone [in the DA's office] has looked at the case and decided it could go ahead; every felony case that comes in the door is not a good case." And there are variables. Sometimes, he says, people lie to the police to incriminate someone. "The job of the DA's office is not to rubberstamp whatever comes in the door," he says.

There are philosophical gulfs between Taddeo and Green, too.

            Take their approach to capital punishment.

            Taddeo is an enthusiastic supporter. "I support the death penalty and fully believe that it's a justifiable punishment for those who coldly and callously kill innocent victims," she declares in a July news release. "As district attorney, I will seek capital punishment in every case where it is applicable and where it does not conflict with the wishes of the victim's family." She says, too, that she would use the death penalty specifically "to address Rochester's high murder rate."

            Green makes no philosophical declaration. "It's the law of the state, and I have no problem enforcing the law," he says. He adds he's conferred 13 times with boss Howard Relin about potential capital cases. In 10 of those cases, Green says, "We came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was seek life without parole."

He does think the death penalty should be available for the "worst cases," as with serial killer Arthur Shawcross.

The death penalty "is not something that should be taken lightly," Green says. "It's something that should not be used for political purposes."

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