Racism, protests and bail reform dominated a virtual debate between incumbent Albany County District Attorney David Soares and the man who wants his job, former Assistant District Attorney Matthew Toporowski.
“I don’t think racism in the criminal justice system is anything of recent vintage. I think it has been with us historically with the formation of our country and our constitution,” Soares said during the debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and livestreamed on YouTube. “Being a man of color, the experiences of many African American men are the same experiences I had as a youth and that motivated me to be part of the system and change the system from within and I have a record that demonstrates that.”
Toporowski, like his old boss a Democrat, said the reason there are protests across the country is because the criminal justice system has protected and insulated corrupt and abusive police officers.
“The reason people are protesting in the streets across this country and in Albany County is the justice system has failed us for too long. Instead of holding bad police accountable, it has insulated them, instead of empowering communities it has over-prosecuted them. Instead of working with long time criminal justice advocates it has ignored them,” he said. “Instead of recognizing a problem before it becomes an emergency this office waits for an uprisings to advocate reform it should have addressed years ago. Instead of truth this office seeks convictions.”
Soares was an ADA before being elected to the top spot in 2004. He took on Democratic Party favorite incumbent Paul Clyne with the help of the Working Families Party and other left leaning political organizations. This year, Toporowski has WFP and Citizen Action support in his bid to unseat Soares. The position carries a four-year term and pays $202,800. The Democratic primary is June 23.
Toporowski said he would create a mental health court and promote other avenues like a drug court which allows treatment of underlying issues rather than incarceration. Soares said his office spearheaded drug court and is awaiting on guidelines from the state Office of Court Administration to begin a mental health court.
“Instead of acknowledging mental health issues and substance abuse issues this office prosecutes non-violent drug offenders at the same rate it does violent offenders,” Toporowski said. “Jail incarceration rate in Albany County is higher than the statewide and I don’t think jail is the best place for drug and mental health issues. They are public health issues and should be treated by public health professionals.”
“In 2005, the Albany County jail was at maximum capacity. That jail is no longer at max capacity because of the diversion programs I implemented. The population of the Albany County Correctional Facility has been reduced by two thirds. The cells are used to provide people with opportunities to get treatment for mental health, drug treatment and provide services to the homeless.”
Both men praised the peaceful protesters of the George Floyd killing at the hands of police while saying they have different ideas on addressing some of their concerns.
“To de-escalate these situations we need to validate the feelings of the people who are protesting. The people want to be heard. I would give people space at the table. I will be out there talking to them and listening to their concerns and addressing them,” Toporowski said. “I have also been vocal in repealing 50-A and sharing the misconduct files of police. We care about truth and transparency and not convictions.”
Soares said he reworked the Grand Jury process to make it more transparent.
“I was the first to put use of force cases into the grand jury and created the most transparent grand jury process where I gather a ton of evidence outside the grand jury so I can share it with the public, rather than gathering it with a grand jury subpoena that cannot be shared with the public,” he said.
The controversial bail reform legislation was also discussed. Both were in favor of easing some cash bail for some crimes so innocent people do not sit in jail just because they are poor but Soares said it went too far and Toporowski said it didn’t go far enough.
“Bail reform is long overdue and much needed. It took cash bail out of the system for petty offenses and non-violent crimes,” Toporowski said. “If anything, it showed how important it was during the COVID pandemic because without it we would have bloated jail populations, 60 percent of it, where people were there on misdemeanors because they didn’t have $400 to make bail.”
Soares said 85 percent of what was passed was great.
“The reality is defense attorneys need more information to have discussions with their clients and shouldn’t be sitting in jail awaiting trials. But, if someone takes a brick and heads to the CVS and throws that brick through the window and loots the store and they are charged with a burglary they are brought to the precinct and then released,” he said. “Inciting a riot, burglaries, when people come into your home and rob you, they are fingerprinted and released. There are changes coming but we have to wait until July 1 to hold people accountable.”
Since Albany County is the home of state government, the DA is charged with prosecuting political corruption, should the need ever arise.
Soares said he was the only one who picked up the ball and prosecuted former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi and since federal prosecutors have opted to prosecute high profile politicians like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leaders Joe Bruno and Dean Skelos. Toporowski said there is not enough prosecutors in the Public Integrity Unit and would add resources to prosecute political corruption.
The two have another virtual debate set for Saturday, June 13. This year’s primary will be held by absentee ballot only.