ITHACA, NY – On Thursday, the two candidates for Tompkins County District Attorney, Matthew Van Houten and Edward Kopko, discussed the issues in a debate hosted by The Ithaca Voice and The Ithaca Journal.
Below, we’ve recapped some of the key points and arguments from both candidates.
Or, if you’d prefer to watch for yourself, you can check out the video below:
In his opening statement, Kopko laid the groundwork for an argument that he would use throughout the debate: that he has vast experience as a criminal prosecutor, where Van Houten has none.
Kopko’s background includes being a police officer, a clerk for the Organized Crime Task force in the US Attorney’s office, serving in the JAG corps in the Navy, an investigator for the state’s Commission on Judicial Misconduct (a commission which investigates judges) and an Assistant District Attorney in Pennsylvania in the 1980s.
“I have prosecuted thousands of criminal cases over the years. I have handled every type of prosecution from arson-murders to speeding tickets,” Kopko said. Kopko said the average number of criminal cases he handles in a year is 20 to 30, running the gamut from misdemeanor to felony cases. However, his practice now focuses mostly on complex professional misconduct cases.
Kopko pointed the fact he was chosen as a special prosecutor in a recent high-profile case involving the son of Binghamton’s DA as an example that spoke to his experience and reputation.
Van Houten agreed that experience was important, but challenged Kopko’s portrayal. He argued that he had 20 years of experience and had handled serious, felony-level cases and serious cases in family court, including many where he represented children. He also compared the relevance of his experience against Kopko’s, as Van Houten’s was mostly in this state and county (whereas Kopko had been a prosecutor only in Pennsylvania.)
“I have no prosecutorial experience, however, when you try a case in family court or civil court, if you are the plaintiff you have the burden of proof… that is exactly the same thing as introducing evidence, presenting witnesses to prove your case. The standard is different from the process is the same. That’s trial law, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years,” Van Houten said.
On racial bias and structural racism
Answering a question about racial bias and the over-incarceration of Black Americans, Kopko started with a statistic: “The Black population in Tompkins County is about four percent. The Black population in Tompkins County Jail is about 28 percent,” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of disproportionate activity the questioner was asking about.”
To deal with this, Kopko said he would create a Conviction Integrity Unit, which would review cases as a team to ensure that people were not wrongly imprisoned. This would include a Bias Review Panel, which would include people of color, to review the unit’s activity. Kopko felt that this community involvement would build trust.
He also said that he would institute “Community-based Prosecution,” which, like Community Policing, would get Assistant DA’s into the community to build rapport and increase trust in the community.
Van Houten said he supported additional training for police officers to combat implicit biases. He also spoke about community engagement, saying that he would personally be out in the community to connect with people and create a dialogue.
He also said that, since the DA is the leader of the office, he would be personally accountable to the community on the bias issue and would supervise his staff to help minimize those biases.
On alternatives to incarceration
Tompkins has long been pushing for alternatives to incarceration, or ATIs such as drug treatment or community service, to limit the jail population and keep people from being unnecessarily put into a worse situation by being jailed.
“Regrettably and sadly, there are some people that hurt us or hurt or families or our children. Those people have to be separated from the rest of us, sometimes for a long time,” Kopko said. “Other people do stunningly stupid things. What you have to do is individually evaluate these cases.”
Kopko stated a fact-based approach should be used to evaluate the risk for each case, and use that to determine which ATIs, if any, would be a better option.
“There should be a presumption that everyone is considered for alternatives to incarceration from the beginning. Each case is different, each case should be judged on its own circumstances. What we can’t afford is for these programs to be diluted by people who don’t belong in them,” Van Houten said, giving the example that a drug dealer (as opposed to user) shouldn’t be placed in a treatment program after committing a drug crime.
Kopko called the Ithaca Plan a “wonderfully novel idea” that must be approached very slowly and carefully. He pointed out that injection sites like those in Vancouver are illegal under New York State law and “cannot be implemented under any circumstances, for any reason, until it’s done.” Kopko also said that recent reports indicated that Vancouver had become a beacon for drug users, and would not want to see Ithaca go down the same path.
Van Houten spoke to the differences between the two cities, saying that a cookie-cutter copy of the Vancouver version would not work. He supported aspects of the other aspects of the Ithaca Plan, notably the Law Enforcement Assistant Diversion and better access to treatment centers.
Asked if they would support an injection site if it became legal in the state, both candidates were unwilling to commit an answer, both saying it would need to be strictly evaluated before they would make a decision.
On the county’s consolidated courts plan
The county recently outlined some possible plans to consolidate several of the county’s courts for efficiency, with a county-wide DWI court being one of the prominent suggestions.
Kopko opposed the plan on account of taxpayer expense, which was estimated to be $800,000 (though some would be offset by efficency increases). He said he liked the idea, but would not want to implement it without first seeing if there ways to streamline the process without additional taxpayer burden.
Van Houten was more in favor of the idea, based on the fact that different town justices in the county sometimes have different standards for DWI cases. A consolidated court would mean fair treatment for all, as opposed to some people being jailed and others being let off with a fine, for instance.
On sex crimes
Van Houten has said he would push for stricter punishment for those convicted of rape and other sex crimes.
At the debate, he said that he would evaluate cases individually, but would be different in that he wouldn’t be afraid to take a case that wasn’t a “slam dunk” to trial.
“I think that in the past, for many reasons, the DA’s office has been spread thin and didn’t have enough trial attorneys, which has led to cases being plea bargained with results that have not been in the best interest of the community,” Van Houten said.
Kopko said that sex cases, especially those involving young people, had to be handled with extreme care and that the prosecution should be focused on protecting the victim from further harm or trauma, as opposed to focusing on the accused.
Both candidates said that they would prosecute instances of wage theft (such as failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, employee misclassification, illegal deductions in pay, working off the clock, etc.)
Both candidates were in favor of stricter prosecution for texting while driving, with Van Houten adding that he would push the police to be more vigilant on this issue.
On marijuana possession, Kopko said that he would use the individualized approach that he had advocated for other types of crimes. Van Houten said that he would not dedicate the county’s limited resources toward other types of crimes, saying he would prosecute them when they came before his office, because that is the law, but would not actively seek them out.
Both candidates said they would have an “open book” policy when it came to providing all available evidence to defense attorneys. Both also said that they had experiences where they had not been given all the evidence in a timely fashion when defending a client.
“The goal of the DA’s office is not to get convictions, it is to do justice,” Kopko said.