MAYVILLE – The ratio of cases per attorney continues to be an issue for Chautauqua County District Attorney Patrick Swanson and his staff, according to the official.
In fact, Swanson says his office is handling 3,500 cases a year with 12.5 attorneys on staff. The prosecutor recently sat down with WNYNewsNow for a virtual one-on-one interview to discuss the tall task that he says his office faces due to the ratio.
“That’s the highest caseload of any of the 62 prosecutors offices in the state,” Swanson said. “At some point, that needs to be addressed. I’m going to fight for that again this year with the budget session just to keep what we have. My concern at this point is that they’ll ask me to reduce my staff numbers at a time where we have a backlog that is unprecedented and that its just high.”
The District Attorney confirmed that he had his 2021 tentative budget meeting with Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel. Swanson says that Wendel did not ask him to cut his proposal, which he says did not include a staff increase. (A check of the official tentative budget shows that Swanson’s staff size would decrease by .01.) However, the County Legislature could chose to cut Swanson’s budgets when it revises the proposal for a final budget and vote.
Swanson says he requested an overall budget increase of $4,000-$5,000 for mandated wage increases and increases in health insurance.
“Quite frankly, we need that (staff increase). But understanding the big picture, that’s not something I can do this year,” Swanson said. “I could be asking for two attorneys every year, and for the next four years, if we were able to get eight, and have 20 attorneys to handle the caseload we have, that would probably be appropriate.”
The Chief Prosecutor says a staff of 18 attorneys would allow his office to start sectioning off into areas of expertise.
Swanson says he also goes into the budget negotiations knowing that his status as District Attorney is uncertain beyond 2020. The Fredonia Democrat is being challenged for a second time by fellow Fredonia native, and Republican, Jason Schmidt.
“The reality is, they (a potential successor) are going to need those people (staff) too,” Swanson said. “I’m going to fight for what I think is right. I’ve been fighting for staff members for four years. I’m going to continue to do that because that is, by far, the most pressing concern.”
Swanson explains that his concerns come from his experience as Chautauqua County District Attorney as well as his discussions with fellow DA’s around New York State. He says, however, that he will continue to direct his staff to prosecute traffic violations and other low-level offenses despite suggestions from colleagues.
“That wasn’t an option. We want to continue to provide those services to our local towns and villages that are acceptable,” Swanson said. “I’m fortunate that I have a staff that is willing to take that high task on every day because I’ll tell you, it’s difficult to come in here every day and handle the number of cases that our prosecutors are handling.”
Swanson also detailed a huge difference between his office budget and the Public Defender’s budget. He says that the Public Defender budget is more than $2 million greater than the DA’s budget, with the difference due in large part to money that the office is receiving from New York State.
He says the disparity needs to be addressed, but adds that he’s proud of the work his staff has done given the disadvantages they’ve faced.
“It’s a testament to my staff how well they’ve done that job given the circumstances that they’ve had to work under and the case numbers that they work with every day,” Swanson states.
Overall, Swanson says that he has balanced the needs of his office with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Chautauqua County Government will face during negotiations this fall.