Helen Moon, director of special projects, outlined the vision for a juvenile diversion program that is currently being developed by the office.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — District Attorney Andrea Harrington doesn't see her job as simply tossing people into jail cells.
Instead, she is seeking to create a culture and environment where causes such as drug or mental health problems are addressed in the community so the crimes don't happen again.
"My vision, and it is a big vision, is for structural change and to reallocate resources from a system of prosecuting people, processing through the courts, and incarcerating people to a system that is more of a social safety net, holistic health-based system," Harrington told the local branch of the NAACP Wednesday evening.
"But that is big. I can't do that by myself."
The Berkshire County branch of the NAACP had already brought criminal justice to the top of its priorities two years ago. Now with a new district attorney, the organization invited Harrington to a meeting to talk about the system moving forward. It is just the latest event the NAACP has put on to better connect with officials in the community.
Harrington outlined the vision she had campaigned on, one of changing to a system that focuses more on diverting people from jail and finding alternative methods to rectify behavior than chalking up conviction numbers. She hopes to move the low-level crimes into diversion programs and focus prosecutorial resources and efforts on violent criminals.
"I do not believe the House of Correction should be the drug treatment provider, or any kind of treatment provider, of choice. I think that jail is appropriate for people who are dangerous but I don't think people should go to jail to get drug treatment or to get therapy," Harrington said, "My goal is to divert people into programs that part of the community."
The most logistical issue facing such efforts is a lack of resources. While there are professional providers of such service, the Berkshires doesn't have enough for the demand.
That is a problem that is out of Harrington's hands for the most part. But she told the crowd at the Berkshire Athenaeum that she has been setting the framework by meeting with local organizations doing that work and state and federal lawmakers on getting grant funding to expand.
"I'm working for more resources but that is a big challenge," Harrington said.
While resources may be needed for better access to programs, the district attorney is currently creating the pathways to get there that hadn't existed before. One of the first actions teed up is the development of a juvenile diversion program.
Helen Moon, a city councilor and Harrington's campaign manager, has taken a newly created job in the office as director of special projects. Moon's first task is to build that juvenile diversion program.
Moon told the audience that she currently developing a model, particularly looking at the Middlesex model, as one that will treat juveniles as juveniles. She said she is also looking to develop task forces consisting of prosecutors from the office, school administrations, police, and state Department of Children and Families in each of the three areas of the county -- North, Central, and South -- to focus on at-risk youth.
"We want to make sure [we find] people who believe in this model of treating juveniles like juveniles and the role it can play in the DA's office. We are going to invite people to create that task force," Moon said.
Harrington hopes to create similar programs for those who struggle with addiction or mental health as well. But, she admits she has a bridge to cross with police officers.
"They feel like they do their job and arrest people that are committing crimes, that are not getting along in the community, and bring them to court and they are just let go. They call it 'catch and release.' They are very frustrated," Harrington said.
"My pitch to them is that these people don't belong in jail. We have to come up with the programming to address whatever the underlying issues are."
She said she has brought in training programs for the assistant district attorneys who serve as the "front line" of the office. They will be reflective of the ideals of the office.
"I hold everybody in our office to a high standard," Harrington said.
Internally, she is also tightening up policies. Auditor Suzanne Bump presented a series of recommendations to improve operations that Harrington said she is implementing. Harrington also created a director of operations position, being filled by Dina Guiel, who worked on the Harrington campaign as well, to tighten up the organization's policies and procedures. One such task is to tighten up how drug forfeiture money is handled so it goes back to the office in a timely manner, which was cited by Bump.
"I created a new position, chief of operations, who is going to help make sure that kind of things doesn't slip through the cracks," Harrington said.
The district attorney added that she is also limiting what the office goes after for forfeiture.
She is working with the attorneys and with defense attorneys to stray a bit from cash bail, which she says hurts poor people. She is looking to be more creative with conditions of release to ensure that the person returns to court to answer to charges and doesn't get jailed just because of financially unreasonable demands.
While there are many ways Harrington is looking to keep people from jail, there are some crimes she won't tolerate. She said she will "aggressively" prosecute cases of domestic violence and pledged to do more on that subject.
"I've heard from so many women who have tried so hard to get justice, tried to get restraining orders, tried to get help from law enforcement, and it hasn't been there. We have a disconnect," Harrington said.
"The police officers I am working with, I know want to help and want to do the right thing. We need to figure out where that disconnect is and to make sure that people who are victims are heard and we are protecting them."
She promised to review 15 years worth of unindicted cases of sexual assault and contact the victims and see if they want to move forward and to bring charges in cases where it is warranted.
"I have heard from victims who felt that their cases were not prosecuted and they should be. My intention is to review those cases, to contact the victims and determine what cases have probably cause and what victims want to seek justice," Harrington said.
When asked about marijuana, Harrington said that is trickier. She said the office is developing a policy around marijuana cases now.
"We are working on developing our marijuana policy. It is my belief that people who are involved in retail sales of marijuana on the black market certainly do not belong behind bars. But I am a mom. I am concerned about protecting young people from marijuana. Marijuana is devastating on developing brains," Harrington said.
She added, "we have had some really violent crimes in our community that came about starting as marijuana deals. It is not without its danger. It is a complicated issue. I don't want people in jail because of marijuana but we are also working on how we can protect the public."
Harrington spoke and answered questions with members of the NAACP for more than an hour Wednesday night.
Local NAACP President Dennis Powell thanked Harrington for having the conversation and said it is important that the NAACP has a continual dialogue with elected officials moving forward.
"It is really important in really changing the narrative at the state house as well," Powell said.
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