Berkshire DA Office Undertakes Reforms Mid-Campaign

Aug 1, 2018

Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello has overseen what he describes as an “evolution” of his office in the midst of a hotly contested Democratic primary.

In a series of press releases over the course of July, Paul Caccaviello — who took office in mid-March following the resignation of David Capeless — addressed claims by his two opponents that he represents an old guard mentality with a series of reforms to the office.

“This campaign is not about labels," Caccaviello told WAMC. "This campaign is about experience and what makes sense going forward.”

DA Caccaviello spoke with WAMC about a July 5th press release entitled “Caccaviello Shares Vision for Evolution of DA's Office” in which he details plans that will “build on expanding initiatives already underway as well as new programs.”

Challenger Andrea Harrington has sharply criticized the office as overzealous with its prosecution. She characterized it as having a “pit bull prosecutor mentality” at Tuesday night’s forum in Williamstown. Here’s Harrington at the first candidate forum — a Berkshire Democratic Brigades event in May.

“The role of the district attorney is to bring justice," said Harrington. "It’s not to get the maximum amount of sentences that we can and lock people up for the maximum amount of time that we can lock them up for.”

Caccaviello has refuted those claims, even inviting critics to tour the Berkshire jail. One of the evolutions proposed by the DA in July was a “different” way to handle the prosecution of drug cases.

“We’ve already had conversations — particularly about the narcotic unit — and what I’ve done is link the narcotic unit with our drug court prosecutor, and I’ve done that for a specific reason,” the DA told WAMC.

The narcotics unit handles trafficking and distribution of drugs, while drug courts are recovery oriented and offer public health-based sentencing alternatives to criminal defendants including adults, juveniles, and families.

“By linking them together, it gives everyone good information, they can share the information, so that our prosecutors are better informed when they go to court,” said Caccaviello.

Another undertaking Caccaviello is touting concerns a domestic violence taskforce. Caccaviello said at the first candidates’ debate in May that he was creating such a unit at the DA’s office.

“In my short tenure I’ve already taken steps to form a unit such as has been described as well as have a subunit,” he said.

Judith Knight, the third primary hopeful, offered her own take on how the office should handle domestic assault cases at that debate.

“I would have the same prosecutor follow that case all the way through," said Knight. "I would not have a rotation of different DAs prosecuting the cases because that’s where you lose evidence and witnesses.”

Harrington mentioned her goal to create a domestic violence taskforce in May as well.

“This is something that is used in other counties; it’s used in Hampshire and Franklin County very successfully,” she said.

Caccaviello’s press release on the unit says that he’s partnered with the Hampden and Northwestern District Attorneys to combat domestic violence, citing their joint appearance at the opening of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance’s Western Massachusetts office in April. He says continuity will be part of the prosecutorial strategy for his office.

“In terms of making a unit that will allow a prosecutor and advocate assigned particularly to a circumstance from the beginning at arraignment and also working with the police so that we can have a better outcome on these domestic violence cases,” he told WAMC.

In May, Harrington repeatedly criticized racial bias in the Berkshires court system.

“African Americans right here in Berkshire County are charged five times greater the median rate of bail as white people," said Harrington, "so that to me says that the idea that we just uniformly apply the law to everybody evenly is not really bearing out.”

At the time, Caccaviello responded to a question about racial bias in the DA’s office by suggesting that the case by case basis upon which prosecutions are pursued diminished the possibility of discrimination. He suggested racial inequity is a bigger societal problem. 

“Those social ills actually start before anyone actually hits a courtroom," said the DA at the forum. "So how do I think we ought to deal with that? I think we ought to deal with it in the legislature, I think we ought to deal with it — with making more resources with people who can study the problem and can offer solutions before we ever get them in the court system.”

In both his press release and comments to WAMC in July, it was apparent that Caccaviello’s views on that issue have evolved as well.

“It is my experience working in the courts for 29 years and seeing what’s out there — and not being unaware that there can be implicit bias everywhere, in society, not just in the court systems but everywhere,” he told WAMC.

By the end of July, Caccaviello had carried out two eight-hour cultural competency trainings from a Lee-based grassroots organization called Multicultural BRIDGE in his office. Gwendolyn VanSant, the group’s CEO, told WAMC that she didn’t want the trainings “weaponized” for campaign purposes.

“I just want to fortify the office and the people who are working there right now,” VanSant told WAMC.

Harrington referred to Caccaviello’s progressive turn as a “come to Jesus moment” Tuesday, and in a phone interview said she’d long promoted such changes to the office.

“These are ideas that I have been talking about for at least since I ran in 2016 for the state Senate, I was talking about criminal justice reform,” Harrington told WAMC.

Knight, who ran on a reform platform against Caccaviello’s predecessor Capeless in 2006, was unconvinced that a veteran of the office like the DA was sincere in his efforts.

“I’m always happy when someone finally gets it and starts going the right direction in terms of a more enlightened viewpoint," she said to WAMC. "But it does sound a little bit like empty promises, and until we start to see something — which a month isn’t going to do it — I don’t think that people have been waiting for this change as long as I have are going to be convinced that they can bet on this DA’s office to make this happen.”

The primary is September 4th.

Below are the full texts of the two Caccaviello press releases:

Caccaviello Shares Vision for Evolution of DA's Office (July 5th)

“Going forward, my plans will build on expanding initiatives already underway as well as new programs, including the following:

First and foremost, this office's commitment to the victims of criminal activity, to public safety and to the well-being of the community will always be a core value of the work we do here every day.

- I will implement a Domestic Violence unit with dedicated prosecutors and advocates to work with law enforcement and service providers.  These are very difficult cases with all kinds of dynamics at work and a collaborative effort to achieve the best outcome possible for the victims is key.

- I will be stressing a close look at firearms cases particularly when they intersect with distributing narcotics into the community: those matters will continue to be treated very seriously.

- We will actively explore different ways to combat the opioid crisis and have already linked the drug court prosecutor with the narcotic unit so that informed decisions can be made regarding the direction of those cases.  Partnership with other community agencies-Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, Brien Center, the Sheriff’s Department, law enforcement, DCF, Berkshire Health Systems just to name some- will continue as we must deliver consequences to those who prey upon the addicted,  and share compassion with those who are addicted.

- The recent Criminal Justice Bill provides great opportunity to develop programs and criteria to divert individuals away from the criminal justice system and I am leading their implementation.

- Internally, I have plans for staff trainings on Cultural Competency, hate crimes, and exploring the issue of implicit bias. With all of the good work of the Community Outreach and Education Department in reaching over two thousand students in the county, as well as other members of our community, there has been an increase in requests for their services and expanding that ever-evolving division is something I will make a key feature of my administration.

Finally, just letting the public know what the dedicated staff of the office does for the public on a daily basis is important-people should know that the people who work here answer that call to public service every day.”

The Democratic Primary Election date is September 4, 2018. To find more information on how to register to vote and where to vote, please visit the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website at www.sec.state.ma.us.

{for further inquiry, please contact paul@votepaulda.com}

Domestic Violence Initiatives Release (July 10th)

No community is completely immune from the effects of domestic violence, whether that be Berkshire,

Hampden, Franklin or Hampshire Counties. Domestic violence has unquestionably touched allcommunities in Massachusetts. Sadly, just from 2017 through today, deaths from domestic violence has,in fact, even touched ALL of the counties in Western Massachusetts. This again includes HampdenCounty, Berkshire County, and even Franklin and Hampshire Counties, where District Attorney Sullivanand his office are currently prosecuting a person accused of murdering his domestic partner in 2017. This person is awaiting trial.  https://articles.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/09/lewis_starkey_arraigned_murder.amp  Domestic Violence is an incredibly serious issue. In just 2017 and to date in 2018, there have beenmultiple domestic violence related deaths throughout Hampden County, Franklin County, and here inBerkshire County (http://www.janedoe.org). Even just one death is too many.And that is why I have teamed up with District Attorneys Anthony Gulluni (Hampden District Attorney)and David Sullivan (Northwestern District Attorney) to combat this issue. Within the last few months, thethree of us, along with Attorney General Maura Healy, were on hand to celebrate the opening of theMassachusetts Office for Victim Assistance’s (MOVA) Western Massachusetts office.When I think of Domestic Violence cases, I cannot help but think of a victim whose case I prosecuted.Nearly 10 years ago, that young woman was murdered by her boyfriend, David Vincent. During the trial,I asked an expert witness to testify and help educate the jury on the dynamics of domestic violence. Thejury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder.  https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/vincentgets-life-in-prison-for-girlfriends-murder,440332 https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/teenagerdefends-father-accused-of-murder,216050  But it takes more than showing up to events commemorating the opening of the MOVA office. It takesreal action to prevent even one more senseless death. It also takes real experience in cases such as the oneI mentioned above to create and implement new ways of treating Domestic Violence cases. That casehelped to inform my work and vision going forward. That is why I have put into motion the creation of aspecialized Domestic Violence Unit within the District Attorney’s office. This unit will focus on crimesinvolving domestic violence and animal cruelty. National studies support the presence of what expertscall the “Link” between spousal, child, elder, and animal abuse.  http://nationallinkcoalition.org/what-is-the-link  This means that one prosecutor and one victim witness advocate will team up, from beginning to end,treating all such cases as high-risk. It means recognizing that in many such domestic violencerelationships, there is no court involvement prior to deadly incidents. It means our team will continue towork with victims in safety planning and will be even more responsive to the needs of victims andfamilies affected by domestic violence through a thorough review of all Abuse Prevention Orderapplications, not just those that are connected to criminal cases.But this is only one step. It will build upon the work done, not only by our office through the CommunityOutreach and Education program, but a continuation of the collaboration with wonderful organizationssuch as the Elizabeth Freeman Center, local probation departments, and law enforcement. I have saidmany times that this is a collaborative effort and I know that, working together, we will achieve our goalof holding batterers accountable and keeping victims safe.