District Attorney to step up prison cases
Serving his ninth week in office, Livingston County’s recently appointed District Attorney Greg McCaffrey says he’s taking a hard line against crime inside state prisons — a stance he understands will be welcome in the law enforcement community and in contrast with the office’s past policy.
In his first two weeks in office McCaffrey opted to prosecute two alleged prison crimes, and he has since accepted a third case. McCaffrey admits to being pleasantly surprised, after taking on the cases, to discover that the State Department of Corrections will reimburse any and all expense his office incurs.
Prison correctional officers regularly compile incident reports which are reviewed by the New York State Police who, in turn, refer particular incidents to the Office of the District Attorney to decide if it wants to take prosecution.
“I don’t know what was done previously, but I’ve had representations made to me that it is nice to see somebody take these cases,” McCaffrey said. “The packages were presented to me like any other criminal case [and] I took the first two in the first two weeks I was here — I didn’t even know [at that time] that we get reimbursed for these.”
McCaffrey was surprised to even be asked if he was going to prosecute the cases. He describes his reaction as: “What do you mean? Do we get a choice?”
While pointing out that the decision of the district attorney to prosecute or not prosecute holds “for any arrest,” McCaffrey realized that, “If I choose ‘no prosecution,’ the [prison] case file is closed. The incident for all intensive purposes is over.”
“It might be hard to sleep at night to know you’ve [put out of your mind] the victim of a crime that you’ve investigated,” he suggests. “Yes, they might be a convicted — — but they’re still a victim.”
“My understanding I’ve gotten from some members of the New York State Police was that the prior administration would be too busy or [thinking] ‘this victim is not going to play well’ or ‘we don’t need to do this,’ but [if] I have a crime being committed in my county, I’m going to prosecute it.”
McCaffrey realizes people may not be particularly concerned over what happens to incarcerated persons, “but the way I look at it, I don’t care what party my victims, my cops, my witnesses are. I don’t care if my victims are likable. If they are the victim of a crime, it’s my obligation to make sure justice is done.”
Aside from inmates harming one another, McCaffrey points out, “If this guy has stabbed another inmate, how do I know he’s not going to do that to a guard?”
State statutes elevate incidents occurring in prison to higher crime levels. If a fight breaks out, any injury-producing assault is elevated to the felony level.
McCaffrey noted that the correctional facilities have their own internal disciplinary procedures which will impose penalities for an inmate who misbehaves or commits a crime. He might ‘lose commissary’ or ‘go into the hole’ or get ‘kicked out of a program.’
But above and beyond the institutional discipline, an inmate is also subject to external criminal law — and it may offer a whole new and important level of deterrent.
“Anytime there is a weapon involved in an inmate-to-inmate assault, for me the bells and whistles go off,” McCaffrey said. “You have the [multiple] crimes of fighting in a prison, possession of a weapon, and endangering other inmates and corrections officers.”
“How can I justify saying ‘I’m not going to prosecute’ to corrections officers?”
“If you tag an inmate in prison with another conviction, you may be changing his classification — and the change may be warranted,” McCaffrey points out: An inmate getting involved in a violent weapons incident very possibly belongs in a higher security facility than those at Groveland.
The prison case accepted by McCaffrey which is now on public record exemplifies how criminal prosecution over and beyond institutional discipline can offer a strong deterrent.
Lamar Porter, arraigned last Tuesday in front of Judge Wiggins, is in Livingston Correctional serving an eight year sentence with three prior felony convictions, two of which were weapon-related. Recently, he was allegedly discovered with a shank (home-made knife) in his possession.
Porter has been charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree and possession of dangerous contraband in prison.
“He [Porter] has a prior felony record,” McCaffrey said. “Technically, he’s persistent offender-eligible. The barest minimum the court can give him if he’s convicted is five years, and that would have to run consecutive [that is, added to his current sentence].”
“But if the court were to find him persistent, he would do 15-to-life as his minimum. He’d never see the light of day again.”
“What about that for a deterrent?” McCaffrey asks.
With New York State reimbursing his costs related to prison crime prosecution, McCaffrey has very adequate office resources to do the work. He furthermore suggests the work, “is good for my prosecutors. We are not so busy that we can’t do justice for a victim.”
“Maybe this is my Monroe County training [showing],” McCaffrey said. “When I was there, I handled case loads larger than the case load of this whole office. We’re busy [here], very busy, but to me it’s not like I’m overwhelmed with cases.”
“I don’t care if I have one case to prosecute or one thousand, I’m going to prosecute them all. That’s what I’m here to do.”
“I have the staff; I have the time; I have the energy — and we’re getting paid to do this. You just do what you have to do. You don’t complain about it.”
McCaffrey qualifies that he has not proclaimed that his office will be accepting in blanket fashion every case from the Groveland prisons.
The one case he has refused to date stemmed from a cell ‘shake down’ which produced a sharp-edged pair of eyglasses which might have been used as a weapon. In McCaffrey’s opinion, however, this particular case was not worthy of pursuit. It was questionable if a crime was even committed and would have been difficult to prove if a crime had in fact been committed.
An element of discrimination?
Looking at his policy from still another angle, McCaffrey suggests it may be correcting what had been in effect, if not intent, a discriminatory practice.
The demographics of the Groveland correction institutions’ population includes a large fraction of Hispanic and black inmates. Consequently, people of minority races finding themselves to be victims of crimes in Livingston County have perhaps been less likely to see the incident prosecuted as a crime.
“My nature is I don’t care if you’re black, Latino, homosexual, heterosexual. It can’t matter,” McCaffrey stresses.
Furthermore, McCaffrey states, an inmate in prison has loved ones and family who are concerned for his welfare. For instance, many people from Livingston County have seen the inside of a state prison as the result of persistent drunk driving.
“What if that person is your family member or loved one, and what if they get stabbed in prison? Aren’t you going to want that prosecuted?” he asks.
Prison crimes and gang crimes
McCaffrey sees some of the prison crimes as similar to the firearms cases he handled exclusively for two years in Monroe County.
“Most of my victims of shootings did not want to testify,” he reports. “I was doing gang cases and seldom had the cooperation of the victim in prosecuting a shooting crime. They hated me, hated my office, hated the cops.”
Indeed, the typical shooting victim would prefer to get the defendant back out on the street so they could ‘have at him.’
In these cases, McCaffrey emphasized to the jury that the law requires them to find someone guilty when the evidence is that they shot another person — aside from the victim’s wish.
“Victims [of violent felonies] can’t drop charges,” he states . “We do take victims’ thoughts and feelings [into account]. We want to represent them, but when I’m in court, it’s The People of the State of New York versus the defendant, and it’s only The People of the State of New York who can drop charges.”