ITHACA, N.Y. –– Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten is seeking a second term, and hopes to expand progressive policies enacted since he took office in 2017.
Van Houten is a local –– he graduated from Dryden High School, after which he attended West Point Academy and then, Albany Law School.
He has over 20 years of experience in law, working first as a clerk for the Ithaca-based firm Wiggins and Masson before getting his law license in 1996.
“And I’ve been in courtrooms ever since,” said Van Houten Tuesday.
Van Houten went on to be a partner in the local law firm of Holmberg, Galbraith, Van Houten & Miller from 1999 to 2012. After which, he worked as a consultant to Holmberg, Galbraith & Miller before opening his own practice, the Van Houten Law Office in 2014.
His practice has taken on trial cases in family court, criminal courts and civil matters. As an attorney, he has also represented children in custody, neglect and juvenile delinquency proceedings.
Since taking office, progressive state-wide changes have taken effect in the criminal justice system that have impacted court proceedings locally –– especially those that cross the DA’s desk.
Raise the Age legislation, signed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017 diverts many of the cases of 16 and 17-year-old defendants from criminal court to family court and applies to a variety of crimes, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.
“I personally handle those cases because I have experience on both sides of the aisle and it’s something that’s really important to me, that that’s handled correctly,” Van Houten said.
Additionally, bail reform in New York State has mitigated financial burdens for those charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies by eliminating cash bail. Van Houten said his office was already operating under a philosophy of presumptive release of persons on recognizance for nonviolent offenses and some non-violent felonies.
“When bail reform took effect in January of this year, it didn’t really have as significant an effect on our community, as it did on many other Upstate communities in New York state, because we were living it and embracing that philosophy long before the law took effect,” he said.
Van Houten said that Tompkins County continues to be an example of how the justice system should work in New York.
“We have more alternatives to incarceration than virtually any other place in the state between felony and drug treatment court, misdemeanor treatment court, and Wellness and Recovery Court,” said Van Houten. “Those are all really important tools that we as a community can use to help people address the underlying issues that cause behavior that violates the law and the long term public safety of our community.”
Van Houten made a point to highlight the number of people in jail in Tompkins County –– 36, an unprecedented low, he said. According to state statistics, the number of people in county jail has been steadily declining since Van Houten took office in 2017.
As part of his platform that stresses alternatives to incarceration, Van Houten highlighted his commitment to implementing the still-developing LEAD program, which he says will likely take effect in 2020. LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, gives police officers discretionary authority to divert individuals who would otherwise be charged with low-level offenses to services, rather than arrest.
“I think that’s going to be a really valuable part of our community that we need to look carefully at to make sure that it’s being implemented fairly and that there are no elements of systemic racial bias that affect it,” Van Houten said.
The DA wants his second term to be focused on addressing the effects of systemic biases on the criminal justice system.
“It’s something that’s really important to me –– that we engage in that conversation and that the community knows that it’s something that we have in mind every single case and we want our system to be as fair as possible,” Van Houten said.
Van Houten’s strategy for this is to continue implicit bias training, for himself and his office, and to have more community outreach between his office and the community. Van Houten points out that there are more female attorney prosecutors working under him than males, but that he hasn’t had any applicants of color to his office. The trait he values most for the team surrounding him is an understanding of the identity and issues within the Ithaca area.
“I would love to expand our recruitment to try to find a way to add some diversity to our office. But, you know, we are committed and people who are from this community, who are raising their children in this community and who understand Ithaca and embrace the values of Ithaca, those are the people that work in this office now,” he said.
Notably, Van Houten faced backlash last year for his involvement in the case of Rose de Groat and Cadji Ferguson, the pair of young adults who were criminally charged for their involvement in an altercation on the Commons. There was public dismay after charges against de Groat were shifted from misdemeanors and felonies. DA Van Houten told The Ithaca Voice he believed misdemeanors were appropriate after reviewing the evidence.
On the outcome of that case, Van Houten said, “I’m glad that they don’t have criminal records and I’m glad that the system worked for them. But I wish that we could have that conversation and wish that everybody could take responsibility for their actions and talk it through so that we all understand why we all did what we did.”
Van Houten has also been criticized for his self-recusal in the cases of law enforcement officers Scott Walters, and Kyle Paolangeli. In the Paolangeli case, Van Houten cites his own role as a witness in the case as the reason for not taking on the prosecution himself. In the Scott Walters trial, Van Houten said because his office regularly had interactions with those close to the case, the sensitive needs of the rape victim were placed above all else.
“Those are decisions that we make on a case by case basis. But they’re careful, thoughtful decisions that are meant to promote confidence in the legal system,” he said.
The DA’s office has been insistent that their relationship with law enforcement is prevalent but not preferential. The office thoroughly reviews investigations that come across their desk from police. There is also a team of three investigators, also former law enforcement, that work in the District Attorney’s office building cases and reviewing evidence.
“We don’t have a hand in hand relationship,” he said. “They don’t tell me what to do.”
The primary election for Tompkins County local offices is June 23, 2020. The second term will be contested, as Van Houten faces fellow Democrat Ed Kopko.