DA Candidates Battle in Pittsfield Gazette Debate at BCC
When one person gets probation after being caught with pounds of marijuana and guns, while another person is given a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling a joint worth of marijuana, it certainly gives people pause. They wonder, is the justice system fair?
"It is essential that the public has faith that the people making these decisions with integrity," Harrington said.
If she is elected she'd set up a citizens advisory board to review policies and cases. She said she'd track data -- from resolutions of cases to the number of times a person of color is kicked off a jury. She wants checks and balances to ensure that the people of Berkshire County are getting a fair justice system.
That's what she told a packed auditorium at Berkshire Community College during a debate between the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for district attorney, a nomination that will ultimately determine the winner because there are no other challengers on the ballot.
The Richmond defense attorney is trying to pry the position away from longtime District Attorney David Capeless' handpicked successor in Paul Caccaviello, as is Great Barrington attorney Judith Knight.
Knight said she would have absolutely made sure the person in the example above with guns went to jail. But marijuana, Knight isn't going to prosecute that. She said the Berkshire district attorney's office has "misused" mandatory minimum sentences when it comes to low-level cases.
"Every opportunity they have to put on a mandatory minimum, they have used it," Knight said. "The school zone [charge mandatory minimum] has been more misused by this office than anywhere else in the commonwealth."
She criticized the office for the handling of the case against Bernard Baran, a gay man who was wrongfully imprisoned on sexual abuse charges. It was at the height of the AIDs epidemic and Knight said Baran was "railroaded" because the DA's office "buried" information proving his innocence.
The two women have positioned themselves as bringing progressive ideas to the office. Those include increasing the use of drug courts, implementing diversion programs to get those addicted to opioids into treatment programs, and increasing prevention programs.
Caccaviello said the marijuana example may seem one way on the surface, but that a lot more goes into making decisions about prosecution and plea deals. He has continually said the key is to find a balance of using compassion when needed and securing consequences when needed -- and often there can be a little of both at the same time.
"It is about having the experience, having an even-handed approach," Caccaviello said, but also added that he couldn't elaborate on the details of the examples given.
He disputed Knight's repeated claim that the district attorney's office has overstepped in its use of school-zone charges in the case of marijuana dealing more than a decade ago in Great Barrington. Knight represented one of nearly 20 teens caught up in the charges. Knight has repeatedly cited that case as an example of an overly aggressive district attorney's office.
Caccaviello, however, said 12 individuals were brought up on marijuana charges and the office only sought school-zone charges on two. He added that the case wasn't just about marijuana but also included a number of other drugs as well.
He said the office needs to take everything on a case-by-case basis. But the way the office has been operating isn't working, according to Harrington.
Caccaviello has worked in that office for 30 years and, currently, North Adams has the worst crime rate per capita in the state with Pittsfield following closely behind, she said. There is a high rate of restraining orders being issued. And the opioid epidemic has only gotten worse.
"The old way of doing things is not working and we can see that here in Berkshire County," Harrington said.
Harrington wants to reform the system and said that requires a "leader" who will do just that. She said opioid deaths have climbed from two a little over a decade ago to 38 last year. That is why she feels diversion programs will help get those addicted with the treatment they need. She said additional resources and partnerships need to be brought in to make a dent in it.
"This crisis has affected every part of our community," she said, later adding, "I am very committed to a problem-solving approach in the district attorney's office."
Knight agrees but also emphasized that was her stand 12 years ago when she first ran for district attorney against Capeless. She said her client in the Great Barrington drug bust didn't need jail but instead needed drug treatment. But, the district attorney's office wasn't interested in connecting him with that, she said.
"The addict comes into the criminal justice because of the conduct, but the addiction is the underlying cause," Knight said.
She later added, "I realized then what was happening wasn't working. Twelve years later there is a crime reform bill that echoes my platform."
While Capeless' record in the office has come under fire for some cases, which in turn is a reflection on his former first assistant, Caccaviello, Great Barrington Police Officer Kevin Larkin described him as having a "calming influence" during the Bard College at Simon's Rock shooting in 1992. A gunman opened fire, killing two and injuring four others on the campus.
Knight hopes that if she is faced with a similar situation, officers on scene will say the same about her.
The former Middlesex County prosecutor said handling active scenes like that right comes from experience.
"David knew how to handle this. David had been on murder crime scenes before," Knight said. "The district attorney should be able to instantly know what to do and that comes from experience. In crisis mode, there is no time to look at a leaflet or book."
Caccaviello said he been to many similar scenes and he hopes officers say "this is how it is supposed to be done" when he works them. He said he's been to autopsies, worked with forensics to gather evidence and determine what and when to test, and worked with law enforcement at crime scenes to secure them. In recent years, Caccaviello said he was the one responding to the scene first more often than not.
While Harrington says she has leadership qualities and new ideas to bring to the table, she has constantly had to face questions about her experience.
She has never tried a case for the prosecution. She has worked in Appeals Courts for defense teams seeking to overturn death penalty sentences in Florida. That experience, she said, has given her experience and shown her the flaws in prosecutors' cases. Harrington believes she can use that to not only get convictions that will stick during appeals but also prevent false convictions in the first place.
"We found it is incredibly important to follow all the leads, be aggressive in following protocols," Harrington said.
She agreed that "it is essential that we have law enforcement that works together and a district attorney on the scene immediately" in such cases.
It was an appeals case that reinforced her believe in addiction treatment and diversion programs especially when it comes to young offenders. She said her office in Florida had a man convicted of capital murder for something he did at age 17. While she was working on that the courts ruled that people could not be executed for crimes committed under the age of 18 and the client was ultimately given a life sentence instead.
It was in that case when she started looking into brain development and said a humans brain isn't really fully developed until around the age of 24. She said in so many cases young people are being sent to jail when they should be learning life skills.
Harrington is supportive of drug courts, which Berkshire County was the last to see open in 2016, and would expand that into having veterans courts and courts for mental health. She said the drug court is "an intensive program" to help break addicts of the habit that led them into the criminal justice system in the first place.
"Drug courts are cost effective because it deals with the underlying problem," Harrington said. "The vast majority of the crime we see in the district court has to do with a substances abuse problem."
Caccaviello, however, said the numbers just aren't there to financially support more specialty courts. He said the drug court has only seen two graduates and there are fewer than 10 participants in it now and that veterans referrals are only 10 percent of what they are in neighboring counties. He said he is in favor of them but from a budget standpoint it may not be worthwhile.
"The numbers may not sustain such a court," Caccaviello said
Instead, Caccaviello believes that handling such cases of veterans, mental health, or drug cases in which somebody needs additional help should be a function of the district attorney's office. He said the office can get similar outcomes through the existing district court system.
One of those two graduates was a client of Knight's. She said saving lives is worth every penny and she wants more specialty courts. With drug court, she believes there could be some changes to make it more accessible, such as a rule that the person cannot work.
"Many people cannot afford to work for an entire year while they are going through drug court," Knight said.
Caccaviello further defended the office saying he has a strong partnership with Berkshire Health Systems and the Brien Center. He said the office used drug forfeiture money to purchase Narcan. He said those life-saving efforts are leading to a decline in opioid deaths. He said the sheriff's office has one of the best recidivism rates because of the reintegration efforts being done there.
He believes there is a role for treatment programs such as those not only because of the help it gives to individuals but because it also helps decrease the market for drug dealers.
"It took a long time to get to this point, it is not going to be a sprint out of the problem," Caccaviello said.
He defended himself against Harrington's shot regarding restraining orders saying while that is true that those are up, there are also fewer domestic violence cases. He said that shows that more people are using the system to protect themselves.
All three candidates agreed when it comes to a recently passed law that bans parents from testifying against their children. Caccaviello said parents should have the option to testify because sometimes parents get law enforcement involved as a way to get help.
Knight added that the law was likely crafted in response to one specific case. She agrees there should be a law prohibiting parents from being compelled to testify, but that parent should still have the option.
And Harrington said the law should mirror that of marriage in which a spouse cannot be compelled to testify but could in serious criminal matters. However, Harrington added that there should be strict laws in place for minor crimes because sometimes "there could be a very toxic relationship between parents and children" and parents may not be acting out of love.
All three were also leery about using the testimony of inmates. Often that can lead to false testimonies provided by somebody just trying to lessen their own jail sentence.
"The reality is that in certain cases the prosecutors absolutely have to rely on witnesses who are not as reliable as we'd like," Harrington said.
She said working with such a witness would require disclosure with the defense attorney outlining exactly what the person was offered and for what information.
Caccaviello said often information is offered by inmates but sometimes it is rejected because it can't be independently corroborated. He said such information needs to be handled carefully.
"All witnesses expect something," Caccaviello said.
Knight said she'd make sure that information is independently verified and that any offers are documented. She said she wouldn't use any information that couldn't be verified.
The three will be on the ballot in just two weeks. BCC's debate was moderated by former Mayor Sara Hathaway and was sponsored by the Pittsfield Gazette, BCC, and Pittsfield Community Television.
Tags: debate, Democratic Party, district attorney, election 2018, primary,
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