September 9, 2005

D.A. Candidate Talks About Drugs

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Gwen Wilkinson, Democratic candidate for Tompkins County District Attorney, spoke about her platform with the Cornell Democrats last night. She addressed approximately 45 students in 165 McGraw during the Cornell Democrats’ weekly meeting. Wilkinson was preceded by short addresses from two of the three Democrats running in the county legislature’s District 4, Joan Spielholz ’73 and Nathan Shinagawa ’05.

Wilkinson, a former assistant DA and prosecutor for the county’s Department of Social Services, is challenging incumbent Republican George Dentes ’76 in November’s election.

Speaking about the problems with Tompkins County’s current approach to prosecuting drug offenses, Wilkinson said the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, still in effect, are a “failure – in the war on drugs.” They mandate prison sentences for all drug violations, even for non-violent or first-time offenders. She said the Rockefeller laws are nothing more than a “formulaic sentencing statute put in place by a legislature that is out of touch.” Wilkinson later said that with these laws, “the revolving doors to the prison will keep revolving.”

Wilkinson instead advocated “treatment courts,” which allow for rehabilitation of the addiction that may have led to crimes like burglary or assault for money or drugs. She argued that despite Dentes’ claims, treatment courts are cost-effective and show real results. “These programs give people their lives back,” she said. According to Wilkinson, Dentes is a proponent of the Rockefeller laws.

After a question from the audience, Wilkinson explained that she does not have the authority to overturn the Rockefeller laws. Instead, she wants to “use discretion” in charging those arrested for drug-related crimes. By lessening a charge or taking advantage of plea bargains, she could avoid confronting Rockefeller penalties in the sentencing stage.

Wilkinson then said Dentes “does not prioritize” the prosecution of violent crimes cases. Claiming that Dentes avoids dealing with such cases in criminal court, Wilkinson said she gained experience with abuse trials because they are sent to family court instead. She said violent crimes should not just be handled in family court, though, and need criminal punishment.

Among Wilkinson’s biggest campaign issues are accountability and open dialogue between the D.A.’s office and the community. Citing Dentes’ lack of response to a hit-and-run accident downtown last December, in which the driver was charged with a minor traffic violation and paid a $200 ticket, Wilkinson said her opponent “has chosen to close his door” to criticism or discussion. “The D.A. has got to be accountable to the public,” she said, promising town hall meetings throughout the county.

Wilkinson also took questions from the audience about the current D.A.’s possible prosecution of the “Redbud Eight” despite an amnesty agreement with Cornell and criticized his decision to call in federal prosecutors for a case against the “St. Patrick’s Four,” a group protesting against the war in Iraq.

There is no primary election for the District Attorney race, but the county legislature and many other positions will be holding their primary on Tuesday. Wilkinson stressed that every vote is important in all of the races. “A very small number of votes could have a very large impact,” she said. “Don’t think that your vote is just a drop in the bucket.”

After the address, Javed Qadrud-Din ’07, who will soon be officially registered to vote in Tompkins County, said he will definitely vote for Wilkinson. He called her “highly effective” and said he understands that this is going to be “a very important election.”

Paul Ibrahim, president of the Cornell Republicans, stated that he will be extending an invitation to Dentes for an opportunity to address the Cornell community later this fall.

Archived article by Melissa Korn < br> Sun Senior Editor