PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Paul Caccaviello had a domestic homicide case while working in the district attorney's office and he said he brought in behavioral experts to help teach and understand the issues of domestic abuse.
He said he's taken steps to create a sub-unit to focus directly on domestic abuse cases and to understand the best ways to become proactive in domestic abuse cases to halt things from getting worse. And that's what he says he'll do if elected as the new district attorney this fall.
"I've committed to bringing in training and education to my staff," Caccaviello said.
However, challenger Andrea Harrington said in recent years the district attorney's office hasn't been addressing domestic violence properly.
She compared it to Franklin and Hampshire Counties where in the last five years there have been zero domestic homicides.
"We have had three domestic violence homicides in the last year. There is something very wrong with we are doing to addressing domestic violence," Harrington said.
Harrington chalks the success in the neighboring counties up to the creation of a domestic abuse high-risk task force who understands the signs of domestic abuse and can identify perpetrators and victims ahead of time. That group consists of people from the office, probation, the police, and the Department of Children and Families working together to solve the issue.
And that's what she'd bring to the table if elected.
Judith Knight is all for such domestic violence task forces such as the one Harrington suggests. But, she'd go one step forward. She said she'd make it a policy in her office that the moment a restraining order is issued she'd have a prosecutor on the case.
"As soon as that happens, I would have someone from my office tracking that restraining order," she said.
That prosecutor will be responsible for keeping a close eye on what happens, giving an extra protection to the victim. And if there is any type of violation, that prosecutor will be working with the victim to solve the problem and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The three Democrats are all seeking the job after David Capeless opted to retire. Caccaviello is the current district attorney after Capeless stepped down early to allow Caccaviello to run as the incumbent and throwing his full support behind his first assistant district attorney.
Harrington, an attorney with experience in both criminal law and civil litigation, has jumped into the race shortly after Capeless' announcement. She most recently ran an unsuccessful bid for state senate.
Judith Knight is a criminal defense attorney who ran for the district attorney's office 12 years ago against Capeless but ultimately lost.
On Wednesday, the trio sat down for the first debate at the American Legion and sponsored by the Berkshire Brigades. So far, the campaigns have been taking shots at one another but Wednesday was the first time the three sat in the same room to hash out some of their differences.
Knight started the evening off refuting Caccaviello's pitches recently that he is the only one with experience as a prosecutor. She said she worked five years as a prosecutor in Middlesex County. It was after that she turned to becoming a defense attorney and she believes being on both sides of the courtroom makes her the better choice for the job.
"Being a prosecutor informed my ability to be an effective defense attorney as my being a criminal defense attorney will inform my ability to be an effective district attorney," Knight said.
Caccaviello cited his experience but more specifically as a prosecutor. He said the district attorney is in charge of some 6,500 cases per year, has more than 50 employees, and a nearly $6 million budget. He said he's been working in that office for 30 years and has the knowledge and skill to take it over.
He said he has learned the wisdom of knowing when punishment is needed versus when compassion is needed through the 5,300 cases that he's handled.
"I've convicted murderers, robbers, and rapists. And they've been removed from the community. And I've even recommended no jail or probation for situations where that seemed entirely appropriate and everything between," Caccaviello said. "I've had real concrete experiences."
Harrington said in her experience there is a number of problems with the criminal justice system and she hopes to change the way the office operates. She said she'd create a citizens advisory board, the domestic abuse task force, implement diversion programs to get low-level drug offenders treatment instead of going to jail, and become more proactive in protecting seniors. She cited North Adams and Pittsfield ranking high in crime per capita and said the office needs to be much more proactive.
"In order to prevent crime, we have to get to the roots of crime. We have to get to poverty," Harrington said.
One of those problems was recently changed by the state legislature in the recent criminal justice reform bill. That eliminated mandatory minimum sentences on a number of crimes, particularly drug crimes.
"The issue with mandatory minimum sentences is that it put a lot of power in the district attorney's hands and it takes power away from the judge to make a discretionary decision that would be appropriate. In the past, mandatory sentences have been used to pressure the defendants into pleading guilty when they might be innocent. They might want to have a trial but with these huge mandatory minimum sentences, it really chills people from trying to defend themselves," Harrington said.
She said she'd like to take a look at eliminating other mandatory minimum sentences as well because she believes high rates of incarceration are directly related to those 1980s laws.
Knight has opposed mandatory minimum sentences for more than a decade. She said those were part of "zero tolerance" laws implemented in a number of states and it takes away the judge's discretion.
"They were a failed exercise," Knight said.
Caccaviello, however, said whether you like them or not, determining minimum sentences is not the role of a district attorney. That's something for the state legislature to determine and the district attorney to enforce.
"We're charged with enforcing the laws, like them or not like them," Caccaviello said.
Knight, however, said it isn't as simple as that. The district attorney can change an individual under a different statute that doesn't carry a mandatory minimum in many cases.
"Every single statute that has a minimum mandatory also has a provision that doesn't include a minimum mandatory. The district attorney can choose what law to charge under, so it is the discretion of the district attorney," Knight said.
Caccaviello also refuted Harrington's claims that there are high rates of incarceration, saying Massachusetts is one of the lowest states in the country and Berkshire County has just over 200 people in the jail. Harrington charged back that while Massachusetts is low compared to other states, there is still five times the number of people incarcerated now than in the 1980s.
The legislature also just passed bail reform. Knight thinks the state handled that reform perfectly. She said it looses up bail based on affordability while still preserving the right to impose bails on those who are flight risks or dangerous.
Knight said the way bails were set, people who were poor couldn't afford it compared to people who more means charged with the same crime and same bail amount. It was those with more money who could go home and to work while the poorer person had to stay in jail.
"People are experiencing poverty being treated unfairly in the criminal justice system," Knight said.
Harrington said that is specifically the case when it comes to African Americans.
"African Americans right here in Berkshire County are charged five times greater than median rate of bail than white people," Harrington said, adding that she'd even consider getting rid of cash bail altogether and advocating for a different type of system to ensure people show up for their court dates.
Caccaviello, however, doesn't feel the change in the law will make a practical difference here in Berkshire County. He said judges have already been taking a person's financial situation into account when setting bail.
"Bail reform is essentially a case by case analysis," Caccaviello said. "In my practice, I've always found that the judge considers a person's finances anyway. This just codifies it."
But all candidates did agree that there is different treatment for those from impoverished families and racial minorities. And all agree that a lot of it stems from social issues long before the individual reaches the judicial system. All of them would like to find ways to help tackle those social issues.
"The idea that would help immediately is if the drug court money creates a community center for disadvantaged youth," Knight said.
Caccaviello rejects that idea, saying there simply isn't enough money to do that. But he cited the office's work with outreach programs in schools that have been ongoing for a number of years.
"There is no large pot of money. There is about $120,000 in forfeiture and by statute, not by discretion, half of that goes to the police. Up to 10 percent can go to an event or the creation of a community center," Caccaviello said.
Harrington said there is a clear indication that minorities are "overrepresented" in the court system and with interactions with police. She is calling for the district attorney's office to keep better records including demographics to help identify the problems.
Caccaviello's answer to that is simply, yes. When asked if his office would support collecting such data, he said responded with a simple yes. And then added that if these things are kept track of and addressed with community members then it "normalizes" it.
"I think it is important to first of all figure out the problem, figure out the solution," he said.
Knight also agreed and added she'd have the other prosecutors in the office take bias training, just as police officers are currently doing.
Those were just some of the questions the candidates handled at the first debate. The three are seeking the Democratic nomination for the job in September. The debate was moderated by state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
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