Knight Pushes Progressive Platform, Experience in DA Race
This is the first of three interviews with the candidates for Berkshire district attorney in the Democratic primary. The winner of the primary will win the office because he or she will be unopposed in the general election.
LENOX, Mass. — Judith Knight says she isn't a natural politician. She's an attorney.
She's a defense attorney who has spent years on the other side of a courtroom from a district attorney's office that operated in a way that she doesn't think is for the best. Back in 2006, her frustration boiled over when she watched the district attorney's office prosecute a teenager over minor drug charges and she launched a campaign to take over the office.
She put forth a progressive platform that includes reprioritizing the cases the office handles, pushed for diversion programs to keep low-level drug dealers out of the courts, and looked to build community through initiatives such as partnering in the development of a youth center.
"They haven't done the prevention piece and I've also seen them prioritize very minor drug cases over more serious cases. Their priority, for the most part, has been prosecuting drug offenders. From my perspective, people who have been personally hurt by an abuser, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, home invasion, carjacking — those things that threaten our very sense of safety — those should go to the top of the list," Knight said.
At the time, she didn't have enough of an audience for her platform and ultimately lost to the then-incumbent David Capeless. In 2010, she considered another run but had an ailing family member to attend to. In 2014, it was in the midst the trials for the brutal triple murder that involved a Pittsfield drug informant and the focus of the public was on that and the final trial was pending around the time of the primary. It wasn't the right time to seek that office.
Knight says the time is right now. This is "the moment" to bring change to an office that has been run by Capeless for 14 years.
"I'm a progressive. I've always been a Democrat. I'm a liberal Democrat. I've been in the criminal justice system as an attorney for 30 years now — former prosecutor for five and then 25 years as a defense attorney. I've also tried cases in federal court. I'm a trained mediator," Knight said leaning back into the couches at Chocolate Springs.
But she added, "I'm not a politician. I think the biggest criticism I am getting is that I am not a campaigner. But you don't want a politician as a DA. It should be neutral."
Knight is taking on Paul Caccaviello, who was appointed following Capeless' resignation, and Andrea Harrington for the job. She boasts of having experiences in multiple aspects of law and running a business for two years and has put forth nearly the same platform as she did in 2006.
A major piece of her campaign is creating a diversion program for those who are in the system because of drug or alcohol addiction. She said those individuals are first convicted, adding a mark on their criminal record for years to come, and then put on probation and through addiction treatment programs. She said too much time is being spent on prosecuting those cases when many of them could go straight to treatment programs instead.
"That's usually a low-level dealer striving to keep his or her habit going. They don't need jail time the first time. I would not enforce mandatory minimum sentences on these things. I think the judges are well equipped to make the right decision. Mandatory minimums are going out of style. It was a failed experience in the '80s," Knight said.
"Those people would get an opportunity to see their way out of the system."
Instead of charging right away, she'd hold the charges and if the individual sticks with treatment programs for at least a year, she'd drop them.
"I would have criteria that I would create. These are basic non-violent, has addiction issues, has expressed a sincere desire to get out of the addiction — you have to want to do this — then they would be on probation and work with a probation officer just like if they got convicted and were on probation. The charge will be out there and if they finish all of these pieces, finish the Brien Center or something else available for treatment, and get to the end, it'll be dropped," she said.
"It is not piling onto the probation officers because they would otherwise have that case at the end if the person wasn't going to go to jail. It is just doing it up front. It is loading the sentence up front and if they get through it, drop the charge so they don't have a criminal record."
She said often "so many people that have addiction issues where if the system didn't feel like their enemy, they might have been more engaged."
"I've also found with my young clients is that they are facing a sentence, they kind of give up because they think they are going anyway. They don't try. Why try when they are going to jail in six months?" Knight said.
Knight echoed the sentiment when it comes to mental health issues, particularly among veterans. She said right now the court only takes into account whether the person is competent and legally responsible. She'd take each case on an individual basis and look to see if the person needs help outside of a jail cell.
She recognizes, however, there is a shortage of treatment programs. She'd like to bolster that by allocating some of the drug forfeitures to treatment programs. She said the district attorney in Springfield was able to create another 20 beds for treatment through those funds.
"Take money from drug forfeiture, those assets, to make more beds available. I'm not talking about building a facility but finding out where is the money needed to help professionals," Knight said.
She echoed a similar sentiment when it comes to a youth center. She said she doesn't understand why even after 10 years of discussion, a youth center hasn't been built in Pittsfield. She said she'd look to allocate some of those funds to provide seed money to get that up and running. She envisions it becoming similar to what the Railroad Street Youth Program was able to accomplish.
"It would be a non-profit that could look for its own funding. We'd collaborate with them. We'd encourage it rather than have it be in its own silo. I don't know why there isn't a community center in Pittsfield. They've been talking about it for 10 years at least," Knight said.
"It has to be a place where the kids are going to hang out, learn about things. They could get volunteers and councilors to be there to talk about mental health, bullying, things happening in their house, parents getting divorced, whatever it is."
Knight also knows that there are much more serious crimes committed in Berkshire County. She said she'll prioritize cases in which someone was physically harmed. And, she has the experience of being on both sides of the courtroom to do that.
"I've tried gun cases. I've tried attempted murder cases. I've tried trafficking cases. I've already done it. I recognize the difference between the low-level guy and the people just bringing in the drugs and people who are using guns to keep their business going. They have to be prosecuted. You can rest assured I would do that and I have the talent and experience to try to cases myself," Knight said.
She feels domestic violate is another issue that hasn't been addressed as well as it could be and would develop a domestic violence task force. She is also considering doing another one focused solely on child abuse. That would be coupled with having attorneys in the district attorney's office who have primary focuses. A certain attorney can still have other cases but would be a primary for one type of case such as domestic violence.
She also feels the district attorney could do much better in communicating with those in the system. She promised to be much more clear about the process and ongoing of a case with those involved.
"The first time someone gets into the system as a victim or a defendant, they don't understand any of it," Knight said. "Once you've been a criminal defense attorney, you really understand that piece."
She'd also look to increase communications with police departments.
"I would be meeting with the chiefs individually and to the extent together if that makes sense but not just when I need something, on a regular basis. How is it going? What is our report card from you guys? Police can be really frustrated if they work really hard on the case and the prosecutor doesn't have it together," Knight said. "I've heard a few stories like that."
Knight would also like to hasten the speed at which the court process takes place. She said cases can fall through the cracks on the district court level right now because of a rotating schedule of assistant district attorneys. She'd like to station the district attorneys in a certain court for at least a year at a time to limit the occasions cases are passed from one prosecutor to another.
While Knight and Harrington both have similar platforms, Knight said she is the one who can actually bring it to fruition. Meanwhile, she believes Caccaviello, who has worked in the district attorney's office for 30 years, doesn't have enough experience elsewhere.
Knight spent five years as the assistant district attorney in Cambridge Superior Court and served as a supervisor in Lowell. She was a public defender in Denver. She taught law for six years at Western New England School of Law. And she has spent the last 20 as a defense attorney in Berkshire County.
She added that she spent two years running Blantyre for a friend, giving her the administrative experience it takes to run a $6 million office with a large number of employees.
"The piece I got there was that I was running a business of 70-plus employees for two years with a budget we had to make. There was no more family money to go into the place if we weren't doing well. I was determined that we would not close the place. We were going to sell and it was going to keep going. I wanted everyone to keep their jobs," Knight said.
"The district attorney's job, the primary function is prosecuting cases but the additional piece my platform includes is preventing crime as well and connecting with the community to do that. The DA himself or herself is running a business essentially. They are getting a budget. They work within that budget."
She said Caccaviello isn't looking to change the office and Harrington doesn't have the experience that she does to be able to step in and start making the progressive changes.
"Being a DA, you have to have to have a long career before that to know all of these things. There is trial experience, which is essential, but also being able to manage the employees," Knight said. "I have a progressive platform and I know Andrea Harrington has a progressive platform. But mine, I have the experience to actually pull it off when I get in there."
Knight was late to the race. She said she was prepared to run against David Capeless and was ready to take out papers that March. She said she had talked with Harrington about it and Harrington had offered her support.
But then Capeless announced his retirement and passed the job to his first assistant, Caccaviello. Knight paused to reassess the situation.
"I was going to run against David. He anointed Paul, which I disagree with, but Paul is not David. I wanted to know if Paul was open to change and I didn't see that. He promised continuity of the same. So I thought I had to go for it," Knight said.
In the meantime, Harrington, also frustrated with the Caccaviello appointment, launched her own campaign. Knight followed suit with her plan to run for office shortly after.
Knight's campaign got off to a slow start and political finance records put her far behind in fundraising. But Knight said the campaign has yet to fully roll out. She said she'd be ramping up in the coming weeks.
"I didn't have anyone on my team that really hadn't run a campaign before so I had to change it up, which I just did. So, we're planning on a full on, rolling things out," Knight said. "When people start to hear me and meet me, they'll understand that if they really want the progressive platform, they want somebody who can do all of it, who can run the office, who has tried cases in Superior Court... I can focus on the progressive changes."
The relatively soft-spoken Knight says it isn't natural for her to be campaigning but for this job, she feels the voters will want some with "with experience and authenticity."
"I'm not going to run for any other office. I am only running for district attorney because that is the only way to get the job," Knight said.
Tags: Democratic Party, district attorney, election 2018, primary,
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