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Almost three years into office, Harrington discusses goals, unfulfilled campaign promises, and shares internal data

A masked white woman in a black suit sits at a conference table in front of windows with blinds drawn
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington.

In an exclusive interview with WAMC News, Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington sat down to talk about her first term and share previously unreleased internal data.

In her downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts office, the county’s first female DA reflected on the slow return to some kind of normal after the chaos of 2020.

“My first priority is taking care of the staff here in the district attorney's office," said Harrington. "Obviously, everybody has had an extremely challenging year with COVID. And my office, we worked throughout the pandemic. People were home, homeschooling their kids, getting on Zoom hearings. There's a lot of logistics. So, people are stressed. And we've really had a focus on building teamwork and supporting office staff. We're almost fully 100% vaccinated. We are following the governor's guidelines on COVID in terms of requiring vaccinations, so that's been a huge part of our work. So we start with that foundation. Now jury trials have resumed. There's jury trials happening in every court in Berkshire County. We have jury trials going on every week. And with trials resuming, we're resolving more cases by plea. So it's been very busy here in the district attorney's office, we've had some really tough cases.”

In Harrington’s 2018 campaign, she ran as a reformer, decrying the office as a black box in need of transparency in the form of easily accessible data on its functions. Almost three years into office, Harrington acknowledges she is yet to deliver on that promise.

“Of all of the promises that I made during the campaign, following through on the data transparency piece has been the most difficult because it really requires extensive expertise and resources from beyond this office," she told WAMC. "So, I've attacked that in multiple ways. So, I was very lucky to be able to partner with the Wilson Center at Duke, and we are the first office in the entire nation to gather this kind of detailed information about how cases are resolved by plea. And there's going to be, they already have a draft law review article based on their findings, they will be coming out with a six-month report for us [by] the end of October. So we're already starting to get really valuable information from that project. And researchers are going to be able to use this in terms of like informing public policy. And this is critical, because we know in particular that the racial disparities that you see in the justice system in Massachusetts are driven by pleas and how pleas work and how cases are resolved. So there was a Harvard study that was commissioned by the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants and it talked about how people of color are spending longer amounts of time in jail, in prison than their white counterparts, even when you control for things like criminal histories and the seriousness of the crime, and it really is attributable to race. And that study specifically said what we're limiting is information about pleas and how cases are resolved by pleas. So we are, this is a perfect timing for this kind of a study. And we work very closely with Duke so that not only do we get information about racial disparities, but we want to know how we're performing. We want to- I was specifically interested in how we're responding to victims of crime. And you know, victims are held up and used for a variety of things. They're held up and used, I think, by people who don't want change. But, you know, the reality is that the system doesn't work great for victims as it stands. And so everything that we do, I'm always bringing in that component about how are we going to better serve victims. So this plea tracker will give us some of that kind of information. I'm also hoping that it's going to show us regional disparities. I think that some of our limitations in getting folks into more of a rehabilitation system and into a public health model are limited because we have limited resources here in Berkshire County. So I want to be able to tell that story. And then also, there's different expectations of me in of my office, because I'm a reformer, and we're trying to do things differently. So whereas in the past, nobody had to prove that what they were doing was effective. There's a different standard on me. And so this data should help me to tell that story.”

That isn’t the only avenue Harrington says she’s pursuing to finally deliver data to the community.

“There's also efforts statewide to improve criminal justice data gathering," she said. "So, the criminal justice reform bill required it, but didn't provide any tools to do so. The Mass District Attorneys Association is working with a consultant on developing new case management system that will include the ability to track data. We just don't have that now. So people ask me for data, and we do our best to get it, but we just don't have the capacity to have that available to us. But we do utilize what we have to the fullest, our fullest ability. We've done a lot of training with staff around the importance of entering the information that we can get into our case management system. So we've been very active in the statewide efforts to improve data tracking. But we also- You know, there's a lot of different systems at play, and we want to make sure that the DAs and the courts and law enforcement and probation are all using systems that that can work together. I think there's huge inefficiencies right now in duplicating the work of gathering data.”

For want of official data from the DA’s office, citizen groups like CourtWatch have issued their own information on some of its efforts. A preliminary analysis issued in late 2019 praised Harrington for rarely requesting cash bail, in line with a campaign promise and full move away from the practice in February of that year. It also observed an overrepresentation of Black and Latino defendants and a rise in the office’s use of dangerousness hearings – a legal means of holding someone pretrial on concern that they might cause violence if released. As she did in 2019, Harrington again pushed back on the work of groups like CourtWatch – and as she did two years ago, claimed technological limitations of the office made data collection difficult.

“It shouldn't be up to volunteers in the community to be gathering this kind of information from the courts," said the DA. "That's obviously not a good way to make public policy. And with our system right now- Our system was created prior to that statute being enacted. So we don't even have a place to enter that kind of information. We would like to gather our own data in that regard. It's very time intensive. And when we can have people back in the office, like interns back in the office, we plan to do that.”

According to the Massachusetts Trial Court Department of Research and Planning, district courts in Berkshire County saw an increase in dangerousness hearings — from 53 in 2018 to 148 through July of 2021.

A chart showing the number of dangerousness hearings in 2021 from Berkshire County District Court: 148
Massachusetts Trial Court Department of Research and Planning
Cases with One or More Dangerousness Hearings under MGL Chapter 276 §58A through FY2021 Q4.

“The reality is, is that when you look at that policy, we are not holding more people pretrial than we were prior under the old policy," said Harrington. "It is not true that incarceration rates have gone up in Berkshire County. In fact, we have decarcerated, and particularly, also, when you look at the number of people from Berkshire County going to state prison, those numbers have gone down pretty significantly. You know, this applies to maybe 3% of our cases in district court. It's a very limited number of cases. And there's been a fair amount of reporting, but the reality is I have not received a single complaint about a decision that my office has made in terms of what we're requesting in the courts. Not a single complaint. No defense attorney has raised any issue with me, with my office making improper requests for somebody to be held pretrial. Not one.”

Harrington’s office shared previously unreleased data with WAMC to corroborate her claims.

In 2017, 219 people were held in the Berkshire House of Correction. At the end of July 2021, that number was 126.

A chart showing the population of the Berkshire County House of Correction from 2017 to 2021
Berkshire County District Attorney's Office

Per those internal numbers, Harrington has also increased the number of yearly closed cases – from around 5,300 in 2017 to almost 9,700 in 2019.

A chart showing dispositions per calendar year for the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office
Berkshire County District Attorney's Office

The number of people sent to state prison from Berkshire County has also trended downward, from 41 in 2017 to 27 in 2018 to 34 in 2019 and 18 in 2020.

A chart showing yearly criminally sentenced new court commitments to the state department of corrections from Berkshire County from 2017 to 2020
Berkshire County District Attorney's Office

Narcotics indictments dropped from 69 in 2017 to 27 in 2020. Despite Harrington’s emphasis on confronting sexual assault in the county, indictment numbers also trend down in that category – from a high of 16 in 2018 to five in 2020. Domestic violence indictments – another area the DA has prioritized – have risen, from two in 2017 to nine in 2020. Similarly, the internal numbers show child abuse indictments trending up slightly, from seven in 2017 to 11 in 2020.

A chart measuring indictments from the Berkshire County district attorney's office broken down by charge and year from 2017-2020
Berkshire County District Attorney's Office

Another unrealized campaign promise from Harrington toward the end of her first term is the formation of a citizens’ advisory board.

“We determined that people seem to feel more engaged and responsive when they are working on issues where they have expertise and that they're really passionate about," the DA told WAMC. "So we have the domestic sexual violence task force. And that piece has a community focus, and really working on changing the culture of violence against women and girls in the Berkshires. And then we have our juvenile justice initiative, which has a group of community members that are working with us in advising on juvenile justice issues. So we've, that has been our approach to involving the community in the work of the office. I would like to have a more formalized approach in kind of how we address issues of racial justice.”

The DA says listening sessions in the form of community town halls are in the works.

She offered WAMC an update on an early 2019 interview in which she shared an interest in pursuing the expungement of criminal charges for marijuana in Berkshire County after its statewide legalization.

“The expungement laws need to be addressed by the legislature, 100%," said Harrington. "We are doing a program on expungement. We've partnered with Community Legal Aid because they have an attorney there who is specifically hired to help people expunge their- With the process of expungement. So we're planning this event with them. We will be giving a training on how expungement works to help people navigate that and then Community Legal Aid will be there to actually take on people as clients. The district attorney's office’s role in expungement is- It's really, it's up to the courts if something will be expunged, but we do review people's requests and we will write letters of support to the court.”

Harrington has weathered public criticism from two prominent former staffers over her tenure. Jeanne Kempthorne, once chief of appeals and office legal counsel, resigned in January 2020, and Helen Moon, once director of special projects, left in July 2020.

Both provided scathing accounts of Harrington and her administration to the media, expressing concerns about accountability and the overly political nature of her office.

“People who work in a workplace, certainly people who work in a government office, are entitled to share their experiences," said Harrington. "And that's not something that I think it's appropriate for me as an elected official to comment on. You know, I'm proud of the staff we build. I'm proud of the culture that we built here in the office. And, you know, I think that our success, and our good work is reflective of that.”

In fact, Harrington has commented to WAMC on both Kempthorne and Moon’s departures and subsequent statements to the press. The DA called Kempthorne a “disgruntled ex-employee” who had served out a rocky tenure at the office, and in the case of Moon, issued a statement accusing her of undermining the office’s work and being dishonest.

“I'm not going to allow people to say things in the media that are lies," said the DA. "I will address lies. And that's why I issued a statement.”

In June, Harrington also faced public criticism over an unsuccessful effort to remove Judge Jennifer Tyne from the Pittsfield District Court, describing her as a “significant threat to public safety.” After an investigation of the claims, the district court system both rejected her request and commended Tyne. Harrington’s efforts also earned a rebuke from the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which sent her a letter describing her actions as egregious, indefensible and unethical.

A letter from the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers condemning Berkshire DA Andrea Harrington's efforts to unseat District Court Judge Jennifer Tyne
Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

The DA explained to WAMC why she attempted to unseat Tyne.

“When I campaigned for this office, I promised people that I would put the people that I serve above the powerful," said Harrington. "And in this particular instance, what my office was seeing were victims of crime who were not being heard. Victims whose concerns were not being properly considered by the court. And I will always stick up for victims of crime, no matter what. And another thing is that the court came out with an extensive report about bias against attorneys of color and women in particular. And they came out with this report, but they came out with zero ways as to how anybody is supposed to address when an attorney practicing in the courts is being mistreated by the judiciary. Zero. Nothing. And so you can imagine how the many attorneys who are practicing in the courts feel about what happened to me, the district attorney, when I tried to speak up for lawyers in my office who were being mistreated. So there's a lot there. And I also want to point out the fact that I sent a communication to the decision makers at the trial courts who had the ability to respond to my concerns which we see in this office because we're the only people in the position to see a pattern. And I got a response from them, I got a request for more information, and I was attacked. But nobody ever said anything about the judge who actually was communicating with me and asking me for more information. So I think that there, that's just an example of how me doing my job evokes response that other people who do their jobs don't get the same kind of response. And certainly my predecessor very successfully removed judges from Berkshire County for a variety of reasons. So people can make of that what they will, but I will always stick up for the underdog. That's what I do. And I wouldn't say that my effort wasn't successful, because we certainly have seen improvements in the court in a number of regards.”

Harrington points to the move away from cash bail, the creation of countywide law enforcement task forces dedicated to gender-based violence, and her office’s juvenile justice initiative as among her accomplishments.

“A big area for us is restorative justice," she told WAMC. "We very much want to bring a restorative justice program to Berkshire County. We have it in kind of small elements in our juvenile diversion program, but we want a really robust program. And to me, a lot of the work that we do is kind of working within the system to make it as fair and equitable as possible. But restorative justice to me is, like, a game changer. That's like a big structural change. So this is an important initiative, and I don't see us accomplishing it until a next term, because it requires a community-based program, a provider, to actually provide the services. So our Director of Community Outreach Bryan House has been working with some different community groups that are interested in providing this kind of a program, but we just don't have the capacity at this time. So that's a really huge piece. We're working with Justice Tina Page, who's a retired superior court judge from Hampton County. She is a longtime prosecutor, she was a defense attorney, she is a Black woman, she is leading our efforts around creating anti-racist prosecution policies.”

Another area Harrington wants to focus on is addressing racial bias in Berkshire County policing.

“We have wonderful police officers," said the DA. "I've loved working with our police officers. But, like everybody, and like every profession and every workplace and every job, there's racial bias in the way policing occurs. And we see it in police reports. And we've worked with the departments on a one-on-one basis in terms of addressing issues, dismissing charges where appropriate. But I want to work on this in a larger way. And so that's going to be something that we kind of move into that phase of that kind of work.”

As far as her plans for the 2022 election, Harrington won’t confirm or deny a re-election bid.

“I haven't made any official announcements about my intentions," she told WAMC. "But you know, I set out to do a job and I'm proud of what we've accomplished so far. But we still have a lot of work to do, and I'm very committed to ensuring that the things that I promised this community, I would do are accomplished.”

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