ITHACA, N.Y. — In November, Tompkins County residents will be able to pick the next District Attorney — and you should, really, really care about who is elected.

We know it has been an intense election cycle where people have seen the very best and the very worst of our elected officials and those vying for public office. It’s a headache. It’s disheartening. And it can feel very far removed from people’s day-to day lives.

Nonetheless, if you live in Tompkins County, you need to be paying attention to the DA candidates and it’s not going to be an easy task to take on.

Previous District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson resigned before the the end of her term, originally set to wrap up in December 2017. But she resigned July 8, too late for there to be a primary.

That means 155 members of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee will decide who to endorse for DA on the ballot. At least one other candidate will be running as an Independent and others will be write-ins. Local Republicans have not announced candidates. 

So you’re going to know these candidates. Over the next few days, The Ithaca Voice is publishing written responses from candidates, who made the time to answer several questions from us in writing.

Here’s why you should care:

This county is rapidly changing and a lot of issues that will impact everyone start right here in Ithaca.

For instance, in the next few months, the city will be hiring a director of drug policy. This person is going to be in charge of leading a heretofore unknown task in the country: getting a city in line to implement major drug reform that includes a supervised injection site and heroin maintenance therapy.

It is a historical undertaking, one which Wilkinson played a crucial, hands-on role in helping to create as the co-chair of the Ithaca Municipal Drug Policy Committee.

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The committee created the Ithaca Plan, a multifaceted approach to addiction that includes drastic changes to law enforcement, prevention methods, harm reduction and treatment.

Related: The Ithaca Plan Archives

The new DA’s perspectives on the plan could have a very real and immediate impact on how that plan comes to fruition.

In a completely different capacity, the District Attorney’s office determines other major issues in this county: it decides which cases to prosecute in court and what plea deals can be on the table for which crimes.

Yes, certain crimes have minimum and maximum sentencing, but that spectrum varies in extreme degrees.

For instance, a first-degree rape sentence can vary from five to 25 years in prison. Split sentences, which allow people to serve part of a sentence in jail and the rest in another capacity such as probation, are also possible in some instances. And that doesn’t even begin to be the tip of the iceberg for plea deal options. There is treatment, jail sentences served on weekends only, community service options — all of these things are negotiated between lawyers an Assistant District Attorneys.

And the ADAs are working under the head of the Distinct Attorney.

Former District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson was candid about how ADAs handled drug cases in the 1990s — no plea deals and mandatory prison sentences were the law of the land.

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In a previous interview, she said, “As a young ADA, what I got my early trial experience in was prosecuting drug dealers who barely merit –barely merit — the label. I mean, they would sell two tiny little bundles of coke to an undercover dealer at one of the bars on the boulevard back in the early 90s  and my predecessor had a policy that any drug dealer went to state prison. So we never made offers on those cases that didn’t include state prison,” Wilkinson said.

That not only impacts people who commit crimes, but it’s highly important to the people who are victims of crimes.

Those people are you, me, neighbors, family members and everyone you come into contact with on a day-to-day basis.

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.