Berkshire DA Discusses SJC Pre-Trial Holds Decision | WAMC

Berkshire DA Discusses SJC Pre-Trial Holds Decision

Jul 1, 2020

In June, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed with Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington that judges can extend pre-trial holdings on defendants who are deemed to pose a risk to their communities. The issue clarifies one of the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all jury trials suspended until at least September. WAMC spoke to Harrington about why she advocated for the expanded ability for pre-trial holdings.

HARRINGTON: The SJC issued orders staying jury trials. And when they issued those orders back in March, they also said that the other deadlines would be suspended like the speedy trial deadline. And in my office, our interpretation of that was also that the amount of time that individuals could be held pre-trial would also be extended. And we had a decision from a District Court judge in Central Berkshire District Court that just released an individual who was being held pre-trial and just refused to consider our argument that the amount of time that that individual could be held was extended because we were unable to bring his case to the jury because jury trials were suspended. So, we appealed to The SJC and they took up the matter. They took up our case and two other cases across the Commonwealth.

WAMC: Can you explain why you're advocating for longer pre-trial detentions during a time where there are a lot of concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in places like jails and prisons, both here in the Commonwealth and across the country?

Well, my office has advocated for release of individuals from houses of correction and from state prison. Because of COVID, we've advocated for release of individuals who are not dangerous and don't present public safety concerns. And we've been pretty aggressive in working with defense counsel, working with the courts, going to the SJC and working to make that happen. But we do distinguish between individuals who present public safety concerns, and concerns around victim's safety, from other kinds of cases. And we are very, very strategic and very purposeful in who we ask the court to hold pre-trial. And we limit that to people that we really have legitimate safety concerns about. So that's why we really wanted to be very clear that the trial courts are supposed to continue to consider the safety concerns that people represent even during this time where jury trials are suspended.

So how did you frame your argument to the SJC?

Well, we submitted a brief, and I spoke at the oral argument and presented arguments. And we framed our argument, really looking at the at the order that the SJC had issued and as the rules of court, and we argued that there was good- That judges should consider if there is good cause to hold an individual pre-trial past the 120, or 90 days, or 180 days, depending on which timeframe we're talking about. So we asked for individualized determination that considered specific factors around individual cases. So that, you know, the process was fair and balanced, the procedural due process and liberty interests of defendants with important public safety concerns.

So how did the SJC decide? And what impact is that going to have in pre-trial detentions here in Berkshire County?

Well, the SJC, it really gave us a sweeping victory. They gave even I think more than what we were actually asking for. And they- But they still said that judges should consider changed circumstances in determining how long it was reasonable to hold somebody pre-trial in light of the suspension of jury trials. So there's certainly an opportunity for a process for defendants to, you know, come to the court and ask for the court to consider relief, and there's an opportunity for judges to make those decisions. And I think it's a, it's a fair result. And it also gives us, the Commonwealth, a chance to, you know, maybe negotiate some conditions of release, that will protect the public and protect victims. We really work hard to work with defense counsel to come up with good conditions of release that are going to ensure public safety. And that's something that you know, we'll continue to do. We are working very hard to be ready, we will be ready for trials as soon as the courts resume trials and give us the green light. And I think people also need to understand that you know, when we're talking about pre-trial issues, all these individuals are still going to be held accountable at trial.

Some groups in the Commonwealth continue to draw attention to the fact that there is an increased number of pre-trial holdings by your office during your tenure. I know this sort of has been affected by the ending of cash bail by your office. Can you speak to those concerns that some people have that that number is still rising too quickly?

My office and you know, what I ran on, was a really a commitment to criminal justice reform. And that is, you know, about protecting our community by addressing underlying issues as to why people commit crimes. But it's important that we really distinguish people that present legitimate public safety risks. In order for reform, to have support and to be effective, people need to feel safe. And we use the pre-trial detention statues used as a tool for public safety, so that we can distinguish individuals that present an unreasonable risk to the community. And we continue to review our cases, we're constantly looking at our policies and making sure that we're being as fair as we possibly can. We really are putting a focus on, you know, working on, how do we get better pre-trial services to individuals so that we can nip some of these kind of difficult and challenging and dangerous behaviors in the bud. So that we can just help people to be healthy and help people to be safe. But you know, for us, in my office, we feel that it is really essential that we use the law to protect the community and it's our responsibility to do so. And that's what we do.

Another topic you ran on was transparency. Do you have any information or data available about who is being held pre-trial or what that information could tell us about the kind of folks who your office deems as dangerous?

Well, we certainly have received census reports from the sheriff's office. And in fact, as part of the other litigation around the COVID releases, the sheriffs, all of the sheriffs in the DOC are required to submit weekly reports about who's being held and so we have information about who's actually being held and who's being held pre-trial. And that's- That's information that we certainly monitor and, you know, try to ensure that we're constantly, you know, reviewing people that are being held and ensuring that we're being fair. And now with the SJC opinion, and as we begin to kind of see what's gonna happen with jury trials, and when they're going to resume, defendants will have an opportunity to make motions with the court, and as their kind of deadlines start to come up then these cases are going to be heard in the courts and the decisions are going to be made by trial judges.