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Berkshire DA Discusses Protests, Decarceration Disagreement With Sheriff

A white woman stands in a sun-dappled park with a mic in her hand with people around her
Josh Landes
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington addresses the crowd at the Berkshire County NAACP's anti-police brutality rally on May 30th, 2020 in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington was elected in 2018 on a progressive platform of criminal justice reform and community-oriented law enforcement. She took part in demonstrations over the weekend that called for an end to police brutality against African-Americans spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. Harrington spoke to WAMC about how she’s preparing her office during a historic period of social unrest, and why she disagrees with the county’s sheriff about decarceration.

Well, the focus of communications here in the office has been more along the lines of a feeling of sympathy and horror over what happened to George Floyd. And people in the office are really, really upset and disturbed by the violence that they saw perpetrated against Mr. Floyd. And then, you know, people, you know, as prosecutors, were, of course, very, very concerned about the protests that are sweeping the nation and the feeling that people of color don't feel safe in their community. And they don't feel safe in particular, because there's there's fears of law enforcement. So you know, myself and my contacts with, in the Massachusetts State Police that we work with, we're all very mindful of those things. So those really have been more the focus of our discussion as opposed to concerns over people here in our community who could protect be arrested. I was really, really- I attended to protests over the weekend, in Pittsfield and North Adams. And I just I can't say enough good things about the crowd and everybody that was there. It was an amazing, uplifting event and the young people that led those protests really did a fantastic job. And we were very happy that it was peaceful, of course.

What are your observations, as a district attorney about how, about how the charging of Derek Chauvin was carried out in Minneapolis, there was a lot of confusion and anger about the length of time between the incident and charges being brought against the former police officer in question. What were your observations as the top prosecutor here in Berkshire County?

As a prosecutor, I was incredibly disappointed by the response of the Hennepin County District Attorney's Office. I saw that it took entirely too long for District Attorney Mike Freeman to charge Mr. Chauvin, and you know, I'm relieved that that case has now been handed off to the attorney general. So that, you know, my hope is that the remaining officers that were involved will be charged and my hope is that the charges will be more serious charges. I think that the district attorney really did his community and did the nation a disservice. And he did law enforcement a disservice in hesitating, in equivocating, particularly in his press conference. I was really upset that he targeted a friend of mine, Marilyn Mosby, who brought cases in the Freddie Gray case, that he would choose that opportunity to somehow try to deflect from his indecisiveness by dragging her into the conversation which was completely unwarranted.

In your remarks, In your remarks in Pittsfield on Saturday, you talked about a conversation has happening in Berkshire County where folks are trying to argue that people are better off in the House of Correction who have substance use disorder, or mental illness, or the lack of economic opportunity or safer in jail because the illness they have, than they are out thriving in their communities. Those remarks seem to echo things that Sheriff Tom Bowler said to me on WAMC, back in May, regarding decarceration efforts related to COVID-19. Was that comment directed at the sheriff?

The comment was directed towards that people who were at the event and who were at- I made similar comments in North Adams, those comments are directed to the young people who want to get involved, who are upset by bias and racism that they see in the criminal justice system. Because I, for me, when I see what's happening nationally, I think about like, what can I do here in my own community, to improve the criminal justice system and to me, that that's what we can here. We can focus on, you know, how can we make our community more equitable for everybody? And to me, it's about providing community based support to people who need it. Because, you know, the people who end up in the in the criminal justice system here in Berkshire County, the people who end up in the House of Corrections are are- there's an overrepresentation of people of color. And if people you know, these young people that come to these rallies and want to get involved, they can get involved right here in the discussion that we're having about criminal justice in Berkshire County.

It does, still, it's hard to look at those comments and look at what the sheriff said back in May and not see some parallels there. So you're saying that that wasn't directed towards his remarks, rather just the people who were present at the rally?

No, I mean, my remarks were directed towards the people at the rally to get involved in this conversation because, there are the- myself and the sheriff of represent you know, different ideas of what our criminal justice system should provide. And arguing that people of color, people with substance use disorder, people who are poor, are better off in the House of Correction than getting treatment in their communities. To me, I think that that, that is a really sad state of affairs. And when you look at the fact that that's affecting people that- of color, disproportionately. I can tell you, if my kid had a substance use problem, I wouldn't want him to end up in the House of Correction, you know, you want people your kids to get high quality treatment. And I think everybody in Berkshire County deserves that, whether or not you know, their race, or their social economic status. I think we all, all of our kids deserve a bright future and we know that when young people go to the House of Correction, we know it sets them off on a on a bad path and our recidivism, recidivism rates are very high for people that end up incarcerated in Massachusetts.

A group called CourtWatch MA, which is a community volunteer group that monitors the behavior of prosecution and judges- in Massachusetts, brought some attention to a case before your office, that of Scott Smith, where a man was detained for 90 days on bail revocation for a pending drug charge in your office sought to keep him in dangerousness, to keep him detained through a dangerousness hearing. They claim that this is not a progressive stance to indefinitely detain someone, pre-trial, during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to that criticism.

Yeah, thank you for that. So this case of Commonwealth vs. Scott Smith is currently pending in the Supreme Judicial Court. I will be arguing that case on Wednesday morning, in the court. And for us, you know, Mr. Smith was detained as a danger. He was adjudicated dangerous, by the court, he was a- detained on a domestic violence charge, and he was released. And then after his release, he committed a new offense, which was possession, with intent to distribute. And because the court is no longer- you know, they've suspended jury trials. So we know that we're not going to have any jury trials before September 8. We now have this question as to how long can the courts detain people pre-trial? This is a very important question, it's of great significance. I certainly would never ever argue that individuals should be detained indefinitely. What we are arguing is that the local trial judges who are hearing these cases, should be able to take into consideration that the fact that the suspension of jury trials has told some of the time limits on how long people can be detained. Because what we don't want to see is we don't want to see a mass release of individuals who are currently being detained as dangers pre-trial, some of those people who are scheduled to be indicted for really serious offenses. We don't want to see them released en masse into our community at this time. So that's an issue. It's a very important issue. It's an important issue across the state. And I'm urging the court to set a balancing test for the district court judges that weighs the individual's level of dangerousness, what kind of risk the individual presents to the Commonwealth in determining how long it is reasonable to detain people. But additionally, I'm urging the courts to resume jury trials. We have to be ready to have jury trials as of September 9, which the Court has said is the earliest date that we can have them. My office will be ready and I am you know certainly offering up our support to the courts, to assist them so that we can bring jurors back to the courthouses safely.

During this period of unrest in the country, we've seen a lot of examples of what appear to be police brutality at protests around the country towards protesters, journalists and citizens alike. Have you considered a situation where your office may prosecute police officers in Berkshire County for similar charges?

Well, that's a very timely question. For us, we are- we have, before this started, we were we were working on what we call our "Brady policy". That's a comprehensive policy around how we address police officer misconduct here in our county and so I've been working with local law enforcement on a formal Brady policy. I expect to have that done, you know, very, very soon. We got a little bit derailed because of the COVID but it speaks to exactly what it is- that you're talking about. And additionally I'll, I'll say that whenever my office becomes aware of questionable actions taken by law enforcement during the course of their duties, we do report those to the respective law enforcement agencies so that they can conduct an internal affairs investigations, as necessary. But I would like to say too, that, since I've been in office, I've been made aware of one instance of a complaint of an officer using excessive force. So, you know, I, I have really enjoyed working with our local law enforcement. And I'm really was very pleased to see that many of our members of local law enforcement spoke out against what occurred to George Floyd and particularly the Western Massachusetts Association put out a statement that was shared by many of our local chiefs, which I was very happy to see.

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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