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This week, The Ithaca Voice is featuring Q&As from people running for District Attorney. This is the first of several profiles. If you or someone you know was inadvertently overlooked while The Voice was reaching out to candidates, please contact us a jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — Matthew Van Houten, a Democrat, has been practicing law in Tompkins County for more than 20 years as a defense attorney.

In 2014, he opened the Van Houten Law Office in Ithaca and has focused on trial cases such as Family Court, criminal courts or civil matters.

Click the questions below to move from question to question:

 

What is your experience in law and working in Tompkins County?

I have practiced law in Tompkins County for over 20 years. I worked at Wiggins & Masson in Ithaca from 1995 through 1999, and was a partner in the local law firm of Holmberg, Galbraith, Van Houten & Miller from 1999 through 2012.

I worked as a consultant to Holmberg, Galbraith & Miller from 2012 through 2014.

In 2014, I opened the Van Houten Law Office here in Ithaca and have worked as a solo practitioner since then. My practice has always focused around trial work, whether in Family Court, criminal courts or civil matters.

I have also represented children in custody, neglect and juvenile delinquency proceedings.

 

What one or two experiences stand out to you as major professional accomplishments and why?


Every single case that I work on involves human lives, in some way or another. When I resolve a case in a way that meets my client’s goals while preserving the dignity of the process and of all the parties involved, it’s extremely rewarding. Effective advocacy can often have a huge impact on the result of a case.

In one particular case I represented a young man who was charged in Federal court with a non- violent offense that was punishable by a mandatory prison sentence. He was married with three small children, and was the primary source of income for his family. I was able to convince the judge to deviate from the mandatory sentencing guidelines to give my client probation and community service.

The reaction of my client’s family was something I will never forget.

 

What changes, minor or major, do you feel need to happen within the Tompkins County legal system? If you are elected, how will you position as DA to help enable these changes?


The District Attorney must have more of a presence in the community. The people of Tompkins County must have the opportunity to interact with the District Attorney and to provide feedback about the local criminal justice system.

Better communication between the DA’s office and law enforcement, and between law enforcement and the community, is critical if there is to be public confidence in the system.

It’s easy for a career prosecutor to lose touch with the public whom he or she serves, which can alienate many members of our community and result in inequitable outcomes.

I will ensure that the public has access to the District Attorney’s Office and that there is the appropriate level of transparency.

 

Current District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson supports drug law reform and helped write parts of the Ithaca Plan. How have you seen the legal system fail addicts or help addicts? What needs to change or remain the same and what is your stance on the Ithaca Plan?


I agree that it is unrealistic to think that incarcerating a heroin addict for a few months is going to help them beat their addiction for the long term. Nor is it realistic to expect those individuals who are in the grip of such a powerful addiction to simply quit “cold turkey.”

We need a pragmatic, long term solution to this epidemic. Obviously the most controversial of the four pillars of the Ithaca Plan is the treatment pillar, which provides for supervised injection sites and heroin maintenance therapy. There has to be strict oversight of such a program in order to prevent abuse and to ensure that it does more good than harm.

We need to think outside the box because we cannot continue to see our young people dying in the street from heroin overdoses. I am cautiously supportive of the Ithaca Plan because the status quo is not working.

Photo by Jon Reis / www.jonreis.com. All Rights Reserved.

 

New legislation indicated that funding for assigned counsel is about to change in a major way and will, instead of being paid for through the county, be paid for by the state. In what ways do you think this will impact representation for low income and indigent people? How does that impact you on the prosecution side?


The cost of representation for indigent people in Tompkins County has hovered around the $1.9M mark in recent years. My understanding is that, in addition to the state relieving the county of much of that financial burden, another result will be that more people will qualify for free legal representation.

This is a good thing for Tompkins County both for obvious budgetary reasons, but also because the system works better when defendants have effective legal representation.

 

What’s something interesting about yourself that people wouldn’t know about? (Hobbies, sports, etc.)


I graduated from Dryden High School in 1985, the United States Military Academy (West Point) in 1989, and Albany Law School of Union University in 1995.

During my first year at West Point, I was introduced to a sport called team handball. (There are no walls and it is not played with a little rubber ball. It’s often compared to water polo without the water).

I played on the United States National Team for eight years and I narrowly missed playing in the 1992 Olympics. I had the honor of representing the United States in 68 international matches and I have two Bronze Medals from the Pan American Games (1991 in Havana, Cuba and 2003 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic).

In 2003 I was elected by my peers to represent the sport of Team Handball on the US Olympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Committee (AAC). The AAC is composed of one athlete from each Olympic Sport, as well as representatives from the Paralympic sports.

In 2008 I was elected to serve a four year term as the Chair of the AAC, representing the athletes in the Olympic family.

 

Is there anything I forgot to ask you about that you want to add?


My daughter, Cody, is 21 and is a senior at the University of Colorado. She is a 2012 graduate of Ithaca High School.

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.