Caccaviello Leans On Experience in Race for District Attorney
This is the second 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.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — For Paul Caccaviello, the district attorney's job is a call to service.
After 14 years as the first assistant district attorney, Caccaviello is looking to fill the shoes being left by the retired David Capeless, who handpicked his successor. With some 30 years as a prosecutor, Caccaviello said he has the most experience and qualifications to take over the office.
"My philosophy is to show compassion when it is appropriate, have a consequence when it is needed. And it is not mutually independent concepts. Many times, if not the majority of times, you have to have a balance when confronted with something. I've been in the office, been under different administrations, and I've handled over 5,000 cases. Every case is really a teachable moment and that is what informs my experience and that philosophy," Caccaviello said.
"It is rare that something is going to come in and it is simply black and white, one or the other. It is generally going to be a mix."
Caccaviello is being challenged by Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington. Both have backgrounds of being defense attorneys, with Knight boasting of five years as a prosecutor. But Caccaviello says his experience is more tailored to the job -- whether that be being involved on the administrative end or being in the courtrooms. He said a prosecutor for the district attorney's office needs to understand not only the needs of a specific client but also the community as a whole.
"The mission of our office is to be there for the victims. That is really the priority of our office: to hold people accountable for the crimes they perpetrated on the victims," Caccaviello said. "We also have a greater responsibility to the community. We have to be cognizant of whether or not a defendants rights were upheld or perhaps they were violated. The effort isn't really about getting convictions at all. The effort is about doing justice."
He's supportive of a diversion program and has been working out the details of how such a program would work locally with other organizations. He said such a program would be a way to get those with drug addiction or mental health issues into rehabilitation programs instead of the court system.
"I'm a supporter of them. If somebody comes in and they are afflicted with an addiction, which I consider is a disease and as a disease needs to be treated, the diversion programs give us that opportunity," Caccaviello said. "If there is a mental health component, diversion programs will give us an opportunity to deal with that. There are also provisions for veterans."
Caccaviello said it isn't always black and white. Often individuals need help but are in the system because of crimes committed against another. He said his goal would be to take those situations and find a fair balance -- one that holds the offender accountable to the victim and one that also helps address the underlying cause of the crime.
"There may well be a victim involved. So yeah, we do have to treat that but there also has to be accountability. The victims have the right to be heard in court and feel that justice is being done. It involves a balance of those competing factions and that's where experience comes in to play, to make those two ends meet," Caccaviello said.
He said he is working out the logistics of implementing such a program now and has been keeping an eye on the state to see if funding will be made available to district attorneys.
At the same time, Caccaviello promises to be tough on the more serious crimes.
"Narcotic and firearm cases, particularly when they intersect, will be a priority in my office. When I talk about narcotic cases, I'm referring to the dealer cases, the trafficking cases. We cannot make Berkshire County a seller-friendly place. It makes no sense. You add the element of firearms and now you are adding an element of violence," Caccaviello said.
He is also looking to create a domestic violence unit. He said right now the office is too small to have prosecutors be able to follow a single case from beginning to end -- it has to be a team effort. But, when it comes to domestic violence, Caccaviello is looking to do just that -- dedicate a couple protectors solely toward domestic violence cases. They'll work collaboratively with victim advocates toward convictions.
The diversion program has been particularly driven by the state's recently passed criminal justice reform bill. And in the race, it is something all candidates support. But, Caccaviello said some of the "new ideas" being pushed by Harrington and Knight aren't new ideas at all.
"I hear new ideas being floated. As a member of the office for some 28, 29 years I can tell you, those new ideas are not new ideas. They are ideas we have been doing," Caccaviello said.
He said many efforts such as community outreach, supporting opioid prevention groups, having an on-call prosecutor to work with police on investigations, have all already been implemented.
"We already partner with some of the service providers in Berkshire County. The Brien Center particularly, the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, and we partner with law enforcement in terms of prosecution of cases. I've already linked our narcotics unit, which generally deals with the trafficking of drugs, with our drug court," Caccaviello said.
Caccaviello has been particularly in praise of the drug court, which is a fairly recent development. He said there have already been two graduations.
"That is something everyone should be proud of. It is a grueling process. It is not something you can complete in a week or a month, this is a very intense program. For people who completed it, it is a very proud moment," Caccaviello said.
He is also proud of the office's community outreach and education efforts. A staff of five has been focused on working with various groups throughout the county. In the schools, they teach courses on life skills, peer mentoring, talk to students about social issues, safe relationships, and substance abuse. Those efforts aren't just to lecture but to teach the students how to teach other students and leadership.
"It has been in existence for over 10 years. They are in schools throughout the county virtually every day and involved in a number of community efforts. They are well received and we've had an uptick in requests for their services," Caccaviello said.
The group gives presentations to the elderly on such issues as identity fraud and it provides training to law enforcement, such as a recent one held on how to investigate crimes committed on disabled people.
"I see myself expanding that staff because it is such a sought-after service," Caccaviello said.
He said each year the office makes donations with drug forfeiture money to such places as the Brien Center for drug treatment programs. They've used the money to buy lockboxes for senior's medication, health cards, and naloxone to distribute. Caccaviello said there isn't much drug forfeiture money available, averaging just $60,000 a year with only 10 percent of that being allowed to be allocated for community use and the rest going toward law enforcement activities.
He questions Knight's plan to put those funds toward a community center, saying there isn't much and dedicating it all to one area would cut down on the countywide impacts it could make.
Caccaviello boasts of having a deep track record working with police, not only in his office but with the local departments as well. The district attorney's office is in charge of homicide investigations -- with the exception of Pittsfield which investigates its own -- and Caccaviello said that at any major crime, a prosecutor will be right on the scene working closely with police.
"We have had an on-call system since 1979. I used to wear a pager so they could get in touch with me. I don't think anybody knows what a pager is these days. There is always constant communication," Caccaviello said.
"I've been on the street a 2 in morning. I go to the autopsies or have somebody assigned to go to the autopsies. It has always made sense to me so that there is this hands-on, we're at street level with investigators, and when we're asked a question we have the advantage of knowing what the scene is, what they are talking about."
That hands-on level is what Caccaviello said will help secure convictions. Further, he said his office continually offers training for officers on changes to case law.
But Caccaviello isn't simply banking on the ideas of those who proceeded him in the office. He's got some other ideas he is currently looking to incorporate into the office.
Almost immediately one of the first things he did was buck his predecessor when he looked to drop hundreds of drug cases caught up in the misconduct at the Amherst drug lab that Capeless wanted to retry.
"David was a great prosecutor and great DA but David is not running for DA. It is Paul Caccaviello running for DA. People will ask me if there is a difference. Well there is a difference of approach but there isn't a difference in the commitment to the service," Caccaviello said.
After a conference with a presentation from the Anti-defamation League, Caccaviello is setting up a hate-crime program. The program will bring in experts to help investigators and prosecutors recognize it, what elements to focus on, and how to prove it.
He's wrapping in cultural competency training soon for his staff as he looks into tackling the issue of inherent bias. And he's been listening to every approach out there about how to address the opioid crisis.
"It took us a while to get here so it is not going to be a sprint out of the problem. It is going to take a lot of different approaches," Caccaviello said.
For example, he recently visited a non-opioid pain clinic and he sees pushing for that availability here could serve as a spoke in the wheel toward address the scourge.
The challenge for Caccaviello is going to be explaining to voters that while he has worked under the last four district attorneys, he will have his own approach to the job. His campaign seeks to do that by meeting people one-on-one.
"Certainly getting my name out is important, but this job is so important to have it be a popularity contest or just because you recognize a name on a ballot is dangerous thinking considering the work we do," Caccaviello said. "It is not just about putting my name on a lawn sign but to have people listen to what my qualifications are versus my opponent's qualifications. There is a stark difference."
He plans on launching a "coffee and conversation with the DA" series throughout the county. He'd like to see that carry on past the election so that the community knows what the office is doing.
"I actually want to meet with the community people. Not necessarily the community leaders, I still welcome that, but also the people in the community themselves. I plan on having throughout the county conversation and coffee with the DA. Let's talk about whatever issues are your concern. I'd like to start it in July," Caccaviello said.
While Caccaviello says he has a different approach, he still comes with the full support of Capeless. And that's kicked the campaign off with some sharp criticism. Capeless resigned from the job early so that Caccaviello could be appointed and run as an incumbent. Opponents, however, felt the move was subverting the Democratic process.
"This is a non-partisan office. Stability and continuity, and a seamless transition was a priority. I can appreciate that. I absolutely get that, particularly when there is going to be an election. When you look at it from a political kaleidoscope, that's where the criticism comes from. If you look at it from a public safety standpoint and having continuity in the administration, it is a sensible approach," Caccaviello said. "I am honored and humbled that David thought enough of me to take the reins and honored and humbled that the governor sees the same thing."
Caccaviello sees himself as an independent but is running as a Democrat for "purely practical" reasons. He said running as a Democrat is the quickest way to get out to the constituents as early as possible.
"This campaign is about me wanting this position for the sake of the community," he said.
Tags: Democratic Party, election 2018, primary,
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