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Different Visions For The Office As Three Berkshire DA Candidates Debate

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Josh Landes
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Left to right: Andrea Harrington, Judith Knight, and DA Paul Caccaviello, in Pittsfield's American Legion Hall.

The three Democrats running for District Attorney in Berkshire County debated in Pittsfield last night.

The three candidates for the top law enforcement job in the county spent over an hour working to distinguish themselves to the assembled voters in the packed Pittsfield American Legion Hall. Moderated by Democratic State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier and sponsored by the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, the spirited conversation began with some introductions. First to speak was Great Barrington Attorney Andrea Harrington.

“We’ve all seen what’s happened here in our community as we’ve seen a downturn in the economy, and nowhere are those effects more dramatic than in the courts here in Berkshire County," said Harrington. "We have some tough challenges that we face as a community. North Adams has the highest crime rate per capita of any city in the state, Pittsfield is number nine, they have the ninth-highest crime rate. We’ve had four women murdered here in Berkshire County, three from domestic violence.”

Harrington’s claims are reflected in the FBI’s 2016 Uniform Crime Report.

“In order to prevent crime, we have to get to the roots of crime," said Harrington. "We have to address poverty, we have to address substance abuse, untreated mental health problems. And there are practical solutions that I want to talk about tonight to these challenges.”

Harrington called for a citizens advisory board, a domestic violence task force, diversion programs that would send first-time offenders to treatment instead of jail, and better treatment for opioid abuse. She also proposed expanding the DA’s duties to include prosecuting financial crimes that target seniors.

Next up was fellow Great Barrington Attorney Judith Knight, who also ran for the office in 2006.

“I’ve dedicated 30 years, my 30 years of being a lawyer, in the criminal justice system," said Knight. "Before I moved back to the Berkshires, I was working in Boston, and I was a prosecutor for Middlesex County for five years. I’ve seen letters to the editor and the media saying that the only candidate in the race that has prosecutorial experience is District Attorney Caccaviello, and that’s just not true.”

When she returned to the Berkshires, she started her criminal defense practice.

“My being a prosecutor informed my ability to be an effective criminal defense attorney," said Knight, "as my being criminal defense attorney will inform my ability to be an effective district attorney.”

She introduced a theme that she would return to in the debate, calling for more transparent distribution of drug forfeiture money back into community programming to prevent crime.

Last was District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, who was sworn-in in March on the heels of his predecessor’s sudden retirement.

“We are charged by law with overseeing homicide investigations and oversight of the 6,500 cases that came into the office just last year. With running an office of over 50 employees, with managing a budget of nearly $6 million, with overseeing a community outreach program that has served thousands and thousands of students and conducted many other programs conducted at bettering our community," said Caccaviello. "That person is charged with the safety and well-being of the communities, with partnering with our law enforcement, our police, our community leaders, our service providers.”

Caccaviello cited his experience with more than 5,300 cases over his 30-year career as a prosecutor, pointing to his work in removing rapists and murders from the community to exercising restraint on lower-level offenders.

“I’ve sat across from families of victims and victims themselves. I’ve had real, concrete experiences, so that my decisions will be informed, and my actions will be informed, and my policies will be informed by that,” he said.

Harrington and Knight positioned themselves as a progressives in contrast to the status quo. Caccaviello leaned hard on his commitment to carrying out the letter of the law and his experience as a prosecutor. A discussion of mandatory minimums revealed some of the tensions.

“They’re a failed experiment, basically," said Knight. "And slowly but surely we’re getting new laws that are taking away the minimum mandatories. There’s no need for them. I’ve always been opposed to them, I opposed them in 2006 when I ran for office then, and I oppose them now. I think that they’re wrong.”

Caccaviello challenged his rivals’ interpretation of the position’s dimensions.

“The DAs are encharged with enforcing the law," he countered. "We’re not up here for the senate, we’re not up here to change the law, we’re up here to actually enforce the law. I hear the concerns, concerns that could be made to the legislature, not to the district attorney’s office. We’re charged with actually enforcing the law. So when I hear that ‘I’m against it,’ a concern becomes, what else would you be against, what other laws are you against.”

Harrington leapt on this.

“This really shows the essential difference between how I view the role of the district attorney and how my opponent views the role of the district attorney," responded Harrington. "The role of the district attorney is to bring justice. 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, and this answer just gets right to the heart of that.”

Harrington charged the office with discriminating against people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, demanding more departmental data on institutional bias. Caccaviello maintained that his office handles cases on an individual basis, precluding discrimination. Knight suggested the DA’s office was unwilling to throw out 70 drunk driving cases compromised by malfunctioning breathalyzers because it was waiting for results it wanted.

The tensest exchange came during a series of questions between candidates. Caccaviello directed his to Harrington.

“Do you think experience matters in holding this position?" Caccaviello asked. "One of the, as you described, the most powerful offices in Berkshire County for law enforcement.”

“Well I think what you’re getting at," responded Harrington, "is you’re trying to point out in a subtle way that you think that I don’t have the right kind of experience-“

“No, I’m just asking whether or not experience matters,” said Caccaviello.

The animated conversation left the overflow audience loudly discussing the coming September 4th Democratic primary.

You can listen to the entire debate here:

da_debate_5-17-18.mp3

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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