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Berkshire DA Candidates Discuss Racial Bias At Forum

Josh Landes
The crowd at last night's Berkshire District Attorney forum at the Conte Community School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Hundreds gathered to watch the three Democratic candidates for Berkshire County District Attorney answer questions about racial discrimination in the court system at a forum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts Wednesday night.

The forum, sponsored by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, was held in the gymnasium of Conte Community School just west of downtown Pittsfield. Will Singleton, the group’s former president, moderated the conversation.

“There is much discussion in some quarters about the alleged disparity in the amount of bail for most black and brown people charged with a crime compared with the amount of bail for most white people charged with a crime," he said to the assembled candidates. "Some people say that yes, there is a disparity, but it is not about race, it is about the ‘fact’ that black and brown defendants are more likely to jump bail than white defendants.”

He first asked candidate Judith Knight, a private practice attorney from Great Barrington, if she believed that there was racial disparity in the bail system.

“Yes, I do think there is a disparity with brown and black individuals being held on bail more than white people,” she responded.

Knight said the issue isn’t specific to the court system or racist judges, but to society at large.

“Because of that, brown and black people sometimes are not — they won’t have — they’re pulled into the system more often than white people so they start to have a record where a white person doesn’t,” she said.

Noting that poverty disproportionately effects people of color, Knight said that an inconsistent housing history can effect how judges set bail for defendants.

“Implicit bias and racism is steeped in that, not from the judge necessarily, but because society — and this is how it plays out on a piece of paper,” said Knight.

She cited the recently passed Criminal Justice Reform Bill and cultural competency training as the groundwork for a less discriminatory DA’s office.

“If I’m district attorney — I know they started already, that I would have training for all my individuals," said Knight. "I think the courts should have it, I think the judges should have it. I think it should be mandatory.”

Candidate Andrea Harrington, also a private practice attorney from Great Barrington, responded to a question about explaining racial bias to those who say it does not affect the criminal justice system by placing it in a historical continuum.

“For many decades now, we have been operating with a criminal justice system that grew up as the systems of slavery ended here in this country, and the criminal justice system replaced those systems,” she said.

Describing herself as being “driven by facts and data,” Harrington said the evidence of bias is irrefutable, claiming that a study shows that African Americans pay five times more bail than white people in the county and that the same national overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system was apparent in the Berkshires as well. She cautioned that the DA’s office is not immune from institutional bias itself.

“So I want to start tracking demographic data and I want to start looking at how we’re treating people, if we’re making sure that we’re treating people fairly, because all of the indicators show that people of color are overrepresented and are being treated unfairly, so we need to work to change that,” said Harrington.

Incumbent District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, who recently oversaw cultural competency training in the office, said the Criminal Justice Reform Bill shows that the state is addressing these concerns.

“I’m confident the District Attorney’s office will do its part here," said Caccaviello. "As I said earlier, we are a staff of dedicated individuals with integrity, so of course we would like to be part of any solution.”

Caccaviello said that despite the fact that “the legislature has spoken” on the issue, it’ll take time for all the agencies to catch up to the new standards and that larger societal ills will remain regardless.

“By the time people end up in the criminal justice system, a lot of things have happened up to that point. So there needs to be some addressing of what’s going on there as well as what’s going on in the court system, and the District Attorney’s office will of course be a part of that,” he said.

The primary is September 4th.

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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