Schenectady County Court Judge Karen Drago has toughened her sentencing policy against people accused of firing a weapon in a crime, hoping to send a message about escalating violence in the community, officials said.
Drago has told the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office that she no longer will accept a plea agreement that does not require the person to serve a minimum of 10 years in prison.
The change has forced a rethinking of strategy in District Attorney Robert Carney’s office and among some defense attorneys.
“It is the first time in my memory that Judge Drago has weighed in on a sentencing policy,” Carney said. “This is a tough policy.”
Carney has been district attorney since 1989.
Drago did not return a phone call for comment. She announced her new policy last week in cases involving defendants Amie Cabot, John A. York and Brendan Mitchell. The three are involved in a March 30 incident where a handgun was fired into a house at 901 Congress St. Mitchell is charged with firing the weapon. Cabot and York are charged with criminal possession of a weapon.
Drago told Mitchell’s attorney, Michael Braccini, she would only accept a plea that sends Mitchell, the alleged shooter, to prison for at least 10 years.
She rejected a plea agreement in which Cabot would have served six months jail time. Drago instead told her attorney, Michael Mansion, she wanted Cabot to serve four years in prison. York also was told he would have to serve four years.
“The judge made it clear that she is fed up with the violence and the guns and is trying to send a message that if you play with guns, you are going to get whacked,” Mansion said.
Drago’s policy change stunned Cabot, who thought she would only get six months in jail, Mansion said. He said she will likely take the four years.
Carney said Drago’s sentencing policy will have many implications. For one, it could mean more trials as defendants would rather go before a jury than accept 10 years automatically, he said.
Mansion agreed: “The new policy might elevate itself to an extent that people will say why bother taking the offer. Go to trial and have the appellate division review it.”
Mansion said plea bargains offer a little bit of victory for everyone. “It alleviates congestion, it ensures a defendant will know exactly what he is getting and relives prosecutors of their case load,” he said.
Carney said people charged with similar crimes have opted to take plea bargains offering, on average, six to seven years in prison. “Ten years is higher than most judges,” he said.
Carney said he supports her new approach. “We have problems in this community and that is a legitimate response to this issue,” he said.
Five years ago, Carney said he made his own policy change to tackle escalating gun violence.
The change is he will not accept a plea bargain in connection with gun crimes and will ask federal prosecutors to handle some gun cases. Federal sentencing guidelines are higher than those of New York.
Carney said Drago is well within her right to impose a 10-year sentence. In similar cases, the sentence range is between 31⁄2 and 15 years.
“Our job is to set the plea, to require someone to be accountable for what they did. The actual sentence is a judicial prerogative,” Carney said.
Mansion said he also understands Drago’s position.
“Something has to be done. Gun crime is out of control. I absolutely understand where the judge is coming from,” he said.
In light of Drago’s policy change, Mansion said he has begun advising all his clients that any plea bargain reached with the district attorney’s office has to be approved by the judge.
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Categories: Schenectady County