Albany’s Incumbent DA Battles a Challenger—And State Criminal Justice Reforms

In New York’s Democratic primary on June 25, longtime Albany DA David Soares is defending his record, and also his stance against the state’s recent criminal justice reform laws.

Rebecca McCray   |    June 21, 2024

Albany County District Attorney David Soares addresses the media during a news conference in 2014. (AP Photo/The Albany Times Union, Skip Dickstein)

Editor’s note: Lee Kindlon beat DA David Soares in the Democratic primary on June 25. The Associated Press called the race late on Tuesday night.

In 2005, David Soares’ arrival to the Albany County district attorney’s office marked a victory for criminal justice reformers in New York’s capital county. Backed at the time by the progressive Working Families Party, Soares railed against the harsh mandatory minimum sentences imposed by the state’s notorious Rockefeller drug laws, ultimately landing 55 percent of the county’s vote. 

Two decades later, Soares is still in office, but his persona has changed markedly. He has used his pulpit in recent years to attack a trio of criminal justice reforms passed by New York’s Democratic legislature, and to pressure lawmakers sitting in the New York State Capitol, which is just a few minutes from his office by foot, to undo them.

Legislation that reformed the state’s bail and discovery laws, and raised the age at which young people can be prosecuted as adults, “sent the wrong signal to criminals; a green light,” Soares wrote in testimony submitted to a legislative hearing on criminal justice last February. His message in recent years, which has garnered support from tough on crime conservatives, has been consistent, drawing a direct line between these reforms and violent crime in Albany County. 

As president of the state’s influential DA association in 2018 and 2019, Soares became one of the state’s most vocal opponents of these changes. Since their adoption, he has helped lead a steady rhetorical drumbeat against them, undergirding a series of rollbacks that have attracted support from politicians of both parties. 

Next week, in the county’s Democratic primary, Soares faces a challenger with a different perspective on justice reform in New York. While longtime criminal defense attorney Lee Kindlon doesn’t shy away from pointing out high rates of violent crime in Albany County, and says the reforms in Soares’ crosshairs are imperfect, he has also seen their positive impact firsthand and doesn’t blame them for crime in Albany. 

Kindlon says Soares’ opposition to these policy changes is off-base, and a distraction from a larger problem. “I think he assails the system as a way to just have somebody to blame for his own failures,” Kindlon told Bolts. “I mean, I really just think it’s a cynical ploy to rail against these reforms, because he’s out of good ideas.” 

Throughout his campaign, Soares has painted himself as a voice of reason that won’t hesitate to continue his crusade against a legislature that he believes has endangered communities through its embrace of reforms.

“All in all, the implication that you can’t implement the laws, take note of their effect, then critique them, is absurd,” Soares told Bolts in a statement. 

The Albany County Democratic Committee withdrew its endorsement of Soares earlier this year, though it hasn’t endorsed Kindlon. This time, the Working Families Party, the group that was once a Soares ally but has also fiercely championed the state reforms he’s opposed, is backing his challenger.

Kindlon jumped into the race this spring as an alternative to the incumbent, after news broke that Soares had awarded himself a $23,000 bonus using grant funding from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). After a flurry of press attention, Soares returned the cash, but defended his choice to take the funds in the first place, arguing that using the grant to give himself and other staff bonuses had been approved by DCJS. 

Kindlon, who previously lost a challenge to Soares in 2012, saw the funding snafu and decided this was his moment to offer Albany an alternative. 

On the campaign trail, he points out the controversial bonuses along with what he says is a staff retention problem in the DA’s office. But Kindlon also differs from Soares in his view of criminal law reforms and the role of a DA in carrying them out.

Local Democratic officials have split their endorsements since Kindlon’s entry into the race. While Soares has the support of law enforcement unions and Democratic County Sheriff Craig Apple, Kindlon has been endorsed by Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, and by Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who announced she was backing him in May “because we deserve a District Attorney who follows the law, regardless of whether they agree with that law.”

Anita Thayer, a longtime Albany attorney and former secretary of the Working Families Party’s capital district chapter, is similarly concerned about Soares’ positions on reform. “The legislature has done a lot to pass good progressive criminal justice laws, and we need a district attorney that’s going to work to implement the laws and work to get the resources he or she needs to implement the laws,” Thayer said. 

“We don’t need someone that spends that time simply bashing the legislature,” she added. 

Some of Soares’ recent criticism has focused on the state’s “Raise the Age” law, passed in 2017. The law increased the age at which a child can be prosecuted as an adult from 16 to 18, bringing New York into line with the majority of states in the country. Since then, critics like Soares have said the law lacks clarity and creates a lack of accountability for young people who commit crimes.

“Raise The Age is the gentle parenting public safety policy for those in most need of the serious intervention teenagers need,” Soares told Bolts in a written statement. “As far as ‘programming’ to fully implement Raise the Age, we used to have a program that would stop teenagers headed to drive-by shootings. It was called ‘removal from the community.’ Short of that, I don’t think anything will work to stop the incessant violence among 16 and 17-year-olds in the inner city.”

In July 2023, Soares called on the legislature to amend the law and remove hurdles to charging young people with violent felonies. Weeks later, Republican Assemblyman William Barclay cited Soares when he introduced a bill to roll back Raise the Age. 

Soares’ critiques of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms echo those from members of both parties, as well as many other prosecutors, sheriffs, and police leaders in the state. Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, opponents of these reforms leveraged concerns about crime in New York state to successfully push the legislature to amend the 2019 bail reform law, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and some nonviolent felony charges, as well as discovery reform, which change the rules for how prosecutors must share evidence with the defense in a case. 

In 2022, Republicans’ gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin also routinely highlighted incidents of violent crime throughout the state, while voters in both parties polled that year cited crime as their top concern. It was a message echoed by New York Republicans, who flipped several congressional seats. Zeldin came within five percentage points of Hochul in this overwhelmingly Democratic state.

But Kindlon believes the attacks on bail reform are misguided. 

“I don’t think that bail reform is the danger that Soares wants to turn it into,” he said. “It’s not the primary driving force in crime here in Albany County.” Kindlon also noted that the county’s violent crime problem long preceded bail reform, and that judges still have and exercise ample discretion to set bail for people accused of violent crimes. 

A recent study from neighboring New Jersey, which largely eliminated cash bail in legislation passed in 2014 and enacted in 2017, found bail reform did not increase gun violence in the state. These findings square with research in New York City that found no increase in arrests of people who were granted supervised release rather than being held on cash bail, and had no negative effect on court appearance rates.

For Lukee Forbes, a longtime Albany activist and executive director of the youth empowerment organization We Are Revolutionary, getting Soares out of office is personal. At 15 years old, he was prosecuted by Soares’ office for providing two other teens with a tree limb used to assault a University of Albany professor. Forbes, who ultimately served seven years in prison, tells Bolts he struggled as a teenager with the death of his mother, running away from home repeatedly, skipping class, and turning to substances to cope. When he was locked up as a teenager, Forbes says he felt “like the system was punishing me for my trauma.” That’s a pattern he continues to observe in the capital region—struggling teens facing prosecution from Soares’ office, rather than getting the support they need to succeed.

Following the enactment of Raise the Age, 16- and 17-year-olds facing felony charges had their cases heard in a newly-created “youth part” of the criminal court system, and 16- and 17-year-olds with misdemeanor charges were automatically funneled into family court, where punitive resolutions are less severe than criminal court. When the cases of teens facing felony charges are heard in the “youth part,” prosecutors have an opportunity to argue whether the case should stay in the criminal court system or be moved to family court. Between 2019 and 2023, the majority of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in Albany had their cases transferred to family court or probation, but that percentage has mostly declined over time, according to data from DCJS.

“What I see from his office personally, I can’t ignore,” Forbes told Bolts about Soares’ charging decisions. “I see them taking advantage of a community that has a lack of understanding of the law, I see them taking advantage of family members who just want to get back home, I see them taking advantage of young people, of people who just don’t understand what is going on.”

In Albany County, Black people comprise roughly 14 percent of the population, but 44 percent of felony adult arrests. Doctor Alice Green, a lifelong advocate for racial justice and criminal justice reform in the county, is particularly concerned about how Black teens are being treated by Soares’ office, and says Soares, who is Black, has alienated a community that once supported him. “There has been concern in the Black community about how he treats Black people,” said Green, who is also Black. “There’s a mistrust there.”

Soares, however, insisted that Green doesn’t speak for Albany’s Black community, and told Bolts she “represents the political interests of defendants and white liberals.” 

Rather than leveraging the potential of Raise the Age to divert even more young people out of the adult system, Green says, Soares continues to insist dangerous young people should be funneled into adult facilities. “All the research tells us that if you put a kid into a secure facility or a prison, that they are going to eventually come back and recidivate and cause more damage, and they’re going to be harmed mentally,” said Green. 

Green says the county is failing to make use of state funding provided for diversion programs, and wants to see more cooperation between the DA’s office and other county offices and local nonprofits that serve kids. 

Forbes says he wants the DA’s office to do a lot more to confront the root causes of crime: “We need to really focus on addressing why kids are moving towards guns in the first place, versus just locking kids up and sentencing them to adult time.”

But Soares says that the failure to prevent kids from both perpetrating and being victimized by gun violence rests with legislators. 

“I still believe in second chances, and fairness, but as I did in 2004, I believe Black children should be able to learn and play without bullets whizzing past their heads on a regular basis,” Soares told Bolts in an emailed statement. “Holding gun-wielding teens accountable is a common-sense way to aid in that cause, which shouldn’t be controversial.” 

In spite of his opposition to Raise the Age, Soares has supported some new alternatives to incarceration and programming intended to help people with criminal convictions successfully reintegrate into the community. In 2017, he announced a “clean slate” initiative that diverted 16- to 24-year-olds with nonviolent felony convictions into a program designed to support them in finding work and staying in school, ultimately sealing their records if successfully completed. At the same time, Soares has blamed bail and discovery reform for decreased participation in diversion programs such as drug courts. 

Kindlon agrees with Soares on one thing: Gun violence in the county is a big problem. If he takes the helm of the DA’s office, Kindlon says he’ll focus on charging people and groups who funnel guns into the state, attempting to stem the tide of gun violence with conspiracy cases. Now, he says, the office is too focused on going after individuals.

“The main focus of gun prosecution here in Albany County is the young man with the gun and a car,” said Kindlon. “So they grab that guy, they grab the gun, they force him into a plea, and then it’s done.”

Kindlon also says he’s eager to invest the office’s resources in pretrial diversion programs, particularly for young people like those he has represented. He concedes that Raise the Age isn’t perfect and says he hopes the legislature will ultimately amend the law. But in the meantime, he thinks clarity about how to apply the law should come from litigation in the state’s appellate courts, which he would file if elected DA.

 “I would love for legislators to clear up some of the language and give some more guidance,” said Kindlon. “But in the absence of that, I understand that that’s what the courts are for.”

The DA’s office isn’t short on resources, particularly after the adoption of the laws Soares so fervently attacks. After the passage of discovery reform, Hochul secured $40 million to offset the costs of adapting to the law’s requirements. More than $2 million of that funding went to the Albany County DA’s office between 2022 and 2024, according to data shared with Bolts by DCJS, which administers the funding. 

Soares dismissed this investment as inadequate to address the burden imposed by the law. “Discovery reform has achieved nothing but the reduction of staffing in prosecutors’ offices,” he told Bolts. “No matter how much funding is thrown at discovery reform, it still burdens a prosecutor with administrative tasks as opposed to furthering investigations.

DA offices statewide also received a massive boost in “aid to prosecution” funding from the state in the last year. While in fiscal year 2022-2023 Albany County’s DA office received $176,540, that number soared to $943,253 in 2023-2024. Over the same time period, the office received a $400,000 boost in funding through Hochul’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) initiative

Kindlon wants to leverage some of these funds to ensure effective alternatives to incarceration exist.

“We’re Albany County; we’ve got resources, we’ve got brains, we’ve got opportunity,” he said. “Let’s bring together all the stakeholders and the nonprofits who want to see these things work, to community groups who want to see young men and women return to school, to support systems that we can build.”

Forbes believes Kindlon is more open than Soares to engaging in meaningful conversations with him and other concerned community members about how to address the root causes of crime in Albany. But ultimately, he needs to see him in action to believe he has something different to offer.

“We won’t see what a district attorney or any politician is really going to be like until they’re in those offices,” said Forbes. “David Soares was the golden child…and now, he’s flipped the script and is a completely different person.”

Support us

Bolts is a non-profit newsroom: We rely on donations, and it takes resources to produce this work. If you appreciate our value, become a monthly donor or make a contribution.