Here, felony charge means conviction

HUDSON—Statewide, the lion’s share of felony crimes prosecuted last year involved the possession or sale of controlled substances–almost 23% of all the felonies prosecuted by county district attorneys and special state prosecutors.

Prosecutions for burglary accounted for less than half that percentage, followed by even fewer prosecutions for robbery, which came in third and felony driving while intoxicated amounted to only 8.8%.

The state reports that “index crimes,” which include violent crimes and property crimes are down in the county over the last five years, and the rate of crime here measured against the population is well below the state average, even when New York City is not considered.

The types of felony cases in Columbia County mirror the state trend, with controlled substance crimes on top. But robbery falls somewhat lower on the county’s list, Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said in a recent interview.

Annual and quarterly data on Felony Actions By Charge along with more than a dozen other report-related tables were compiled by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) in its Felony Processing Report Series released earlier this year. DA Czajka reviewed the data and noticed one statistic that stands out. Of the 67 cases in which convictions were attained by the DA’s office last year, 66 defendants were convicted on the top or most serious charge, only one was convicted of a lesser charge.

Statistically, that means when it comes to obtaining convictions on the top charge of an indictment or superior court information (SCI), the Columbia County DA’s Office has a 98.5% conviction rate. That compares to a state average of 56% based on 42,251 total convictions. That figure was confirmed by a search of the data independently obtained by The Columbia Paper.

Mr. Czajka said his office’s conviction rate and the county’s low crime rate are a reflection of good police work overall and the policies of his office, which include no plea bargaining and the individual screening of all crimes that come before them. “We work with police from the beginning and do not over or under charge people. In indicted cases we work very hard to be very prepared for trial” Mr. Czajka said, adding, “We don’t bluff.”

Neither the county’s Public Defender’s Office nor state DCJS would comment on the implication of the rate.

As a repository of state data on criminal justice the DCJS provides reports to agencies around the state quarterly for their use in whatever way they see fit, Janine Kava, the DCJS director of public information, told The Columbia Paper in a recent interview. She said DCJS will also provide reports in different ways based on special requests for varied formats or categories.

While her agency “can’t weigh in” on the data, Ms. Kava cautioned against using the figures to compare counties because “so many different factors come into play” in the how cases are disposed of, such as victim cooperation, proof, witnesses and the DA’s policies for dealing with any given case.

Ms. Kava said local agencies and officials are aware of what policies inform the disposition data and they may use the information, for example, to decide where to better deploy officers or resources, she said.

DA Czajka said he uses the statistics to determine “whether we’re successful in terms of goals to successfully prosecute cases compared to other counties.” If he and his team find the “numbers are out of whack they try to figure out why” and do something about it.

With regard to dealing with drug cases, Mr. Czajka said about 20 years ago, he and then Sheriff Paul Proper instituted a Columbia County Drug Task Force, which has now been “gone for quite some time.”

One of the reasons the task force was instituted was to have a unit dedicated to small scale drug crimes.

Traditionally, the strategy was to have undercover police or confidential informants buy drugs from sellers. The informants would do this work in order to “work off” charges pending, to get paid or, on rare occasions, to “help society,” the DA said, noting his preference not to use informants because they were criminals themselves and in many cases had criminal histories no better that the dealers he was trying to catch.

With the establishment of the task force staffed by police officers, drug arrests increased “unbelievably,” Mr. Czajka said.

Money to pay fulltime officers on the task force came from both the DA’s and the Sheriff’s Office budgets. The DA’s total budget for 2014 is $1,101,556, with personnel services the primary expense at $998,762 up 5% from the previous year, but notably under $1 million, which it exceeded in years past, according to the DA.

The task force was dissolved sometime later after the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET) was introduced. While the State Police always had a narcotics unit that dealt with large scale drug crimes, Columbia County needed a unit of undercover officers who investigated and concentrated on small scale drug crimes, which CNET does. The drug raid in Hudson last year in which more than 20 people were rounded up on drug charges was a CNET case, he said.

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