In the race for Suffolk County district attorney, the question of who will be tougher on crime — Democrat Tim Sini or Ray Tierney, the Republican and Conservative Party nominee — has arisen as the top issue.
Sini, the incumbent, is seeking election to a second term against Tierney, a former federal and Suffolk County prosecutor.
Sini, 41, of Babylon, says he has targeted MS-13 gang violence, environmental crimes, drug dealing and political corruption since taking office in 2018.
Sini, a former federal prosecutor, has held frequent news conferences touting arrests and cases his office is pursuing throughout his tenure.
"We've been keeping Suffolk safe for the past six years and will continue to fight for the residents to keep Suffolk as safe as possible, and will continue to decimate gangs like MS-13," Sini told Newsday, referring to his service as police commissioner and district attorney.
Tierney, 55, of Holtsville, points to his experience as a former assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and as a former Suffolk County prosecutor.
WHAT TO KNOW
Ray Tierney, who is running on the Republican and Conservative Party lines for Suffolk County district attorney, has worked as an assistant Suffolk district attorney and as an assistant United States Attorney.
Tierney, 55, of Holtsville, says he will run a politically independent district attorney’s office, bring more indictments in criminal cases, reestablish a dedicated anti-gang unit and improve relationships with federal authorities.
Campaign finance reports show Tierney's campaign has $148,141 in cash on hand, and raised $168,920 and spent $328,600 from July 11 to Sept. 27, the most recent reporting period.
Democrat Tim Sini, who is seeking a second term as Suffolk County district attorney, has served as Suffolk County police commissioner, an assistant United States Attorney and as a Suffolk deputy county executive for public safety.
Sini, 41, of Babylon, touts his record of prosecuting the MS-13 gang and environmental crimes, and reforming the district attorney’s office after former District Attorney Thomas Spota was convicted in a federal corruption case.
Campaign finance reports show Sini's campaign has $764,551 in cash on hand, and raised $450,141 and spent $1,028,393 from July 11 to Sept. 27, the most recent reporting period.
Tierney, chief counsel for compliance and enforcement at Suffolk County Off-Tracking Betting Corp., said as district attorney he would bring more indictments in criminal cases, reestablish a dedicated gang unit, reinstall ShotSpotter technology in the county and lobby the state Legislature to overturn bail reform laws.
During the campaign, Tierney has held regular news conferences in which he highlights what he says were failures by Sini to aggressively prosecute criminal defendants who allegedly committed more serious crimes while on bail or court-ordered release.
"I'm not portraying myself as tougher on crime," Tierney, who is not registered with a political party, told Newsday. "I am tougher on crime."
It's not unusual for district attorney races to focus on the question of which candidate will fight crime most effectively, said political consultant Michael Dawidziak, who has worked primarily for Republicans.
" ‘I’m the person who’s going to keep your neighborhoods safe, keep the criminals off the street,’ " Dawidziak said of typical campaign messaging.
But district attorney campaigns have a twist this year on Long Island and in some other areas of the state, Dawidziak said.
Republicans are attacking Democrats for bail reform laws the Democrat-controlled state Legislature passed in 2019.
The reform package eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent charges, so defendants won't have to wait in jail before trial if they can't afford to post bail.
Opponents of the law, including many county district attorneys, warned it could enable criminal defendants to commit crimes while out of jail.
Supporters of the law say reoffending is rare, and argue that detaining people based on their ability to post bail discriminates against low-income defendants and pressures them to accept plea bargains.
Dawidziak said polling has shown bail reform to be unpopular in suburban areas such as Nassau and Suffolk counties.
"I haven't seen anything this unpopular in a long time," Dawidziak said.
Both Sini and Tierney say they oppose the bail reform law.
Sini served as a federal prosecutor for more than four years.
He prosecuted cases against the former national leader of the Trinitarios gang, a Bronx drug trafficking group and a murder-for-hire conspiracy, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.
Sini, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn Law School, worked for about a year as deputy Suffolk County executive for public safety under County Executive Steve Bellone, who appointed him as county police commissioner.
Sini served as commissioner for 18 months. He was elected as Suffolk County district attorney in November 2017.
Sini, who was elected recently as president of the state district attorneys association, said if reelected he would continue to invest in new technology and "make the office a national model."
Tierney, a graduate of Brown University and St. John's University School of Law in Queens, started his career in the Suffolk County district attorney's office.
During 14 years in the office, Tierney prosecuted two men charged in the near-fatal beating of Shane Daniels outside a Westhampton Beach nightclub in 1996, as well as rape, domestic abuse and child pornography cases.
Tierney joined the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District in 2008. He prosecuted cases against the MS-13 gang, and political corruption cases against former Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, former Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto and former Suffolk Conservative Party leader Edward Walsh.
In 2019, Tierney joined the Kings County district attorney's office, where he oversaw units focused on violent criminal enterprises, crime strategies and police body-worn cameras.
He served there for about a year, before moving to Suffolk OTB.
As the challenger in the DA's race, Tierney has focused on Sini's record as district attorney, arguing the incumbent is "soft on crime."
Tierney’s primary argument is that Sini's office has failed to indict enough suspects, including in dozens of illegal gun possession cases.
Tierney says he would indict in every gun possession case possible.
Tierney has held weekly news conferences focused on issues including a spate of fentanyl overdoses on the East End in August, a murder in April in Bay Shore and a shooting there in September.
Of the suspects in those cases, three had been out of jail on bail or court-ordered release for previous arrests for crimes such as illegal gun possession and assault, according to court records.
Tierney says Sini's 's office should have indicted the suspects immediately after their first offenses, or on more serious charges.
If that had happened, judges who dealt with them as defendants after subsequent arrests may have taken the cases more seriously and been more likely to have set higher bail or remanded the defendants to jail, according to Tierney.
"They presented a clear and present danger to the community," Tierney said of the defendants. "You take that individual off the street as soon as possible."
Sini defended his performance in all the cases Tierney cites, and said his office fought for higher bail or to remand defendants to jail when allowed by law.
"There's literally not a single thing in this procedural history that one could even remotely argue was handled anything but appropriately by my office," Sini told Newsday.
The three cases Tierney has focused on in his news conferences on the indictment issue involve Black male defendants
Jason Williamson, executive director of New York University’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, said campaign narratives such as Tierney's play to "existing fears and stereotypes" about Black men.
Tierney responded that in raising the issue of whether Sini is prosecuting aggressively enough, he is speaking up on behalf of crime victims in the county, who include people of color.
Attorneys for some of the defendants say Tierney is blaming their clients for serious past crimes they have not been convicted of, when they deserve the presumption of innocence.
Sini said his prosecutors have used their discretion to seek indictments appropriately.
When an indictment was not brought immediately for earlier criminal allegations, prosecutors were either negotiating plea deals with defense attorneys, gathering more evidence for a broader investigation or trying to protect witnesses or victims who did not want to be identified in court, Sini said.
"Any prosecutor knows that there are circumstances where you do not indict," Sini said. "But let's be clear, we've indicted thousands of cases."
In New York, indictments handed up by grand juries in secret proceedings represent the primary pathway for prosecuting felonies, legal experts said.
Yet, indictments are handed up in only a relatively small percentage of cases, according to data from the state Office of Court Administration.
With 101,369 felony arrests of adults statewide in 2020, there were 12,394 felony indictments, the data show.
In Suffolk County, there were 3,560 felony arrests last year, and 438 felony indictments.
In Nassau, the rate was higher in 2020: 4,607 felony arrests, and 971 indictments.
Hofstra University criminal law professor Alafair Burke called it unusual for defendants to be arrested for crimes while awaiting resolution of earlier charges.
In New York City, for instance, 14% of people released on bail for felony charges were rearrested on other charges in 2020, according to the New York Police Department website. Such statistics are not available for Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Burke, a former Portland, Oregon, prosecutor and a novelist, said the only way to ensure defendants won't reoffend while on bail would be to remand all of them pending trial, which is "neither practical nor just."
Nonetheless, Burke said, "that's every prosecutors’ nightmare — you don't charge a case for some reason and then something bad happens."