District attorney candidates believe background key for the office

Candidates in the race for Berkshire district attorney debate at Berkshire Community College. From left are Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, private attorneys Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington, on Aug. 20, 2018.

PITTSFIELD — The varied legal experience of the three candidates for Berkshire District Attorney could decide who becomes the county's top prosecutor.

Interim Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, and Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington, who both are private practice lawyers, believe that they have the right background to hold the elected office for the next four years.

The three Democrats boasted of their professional backgrounds during a 90-minute debate Wednesday evening at Conte Community School, sponsored by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP.

Caccaviello's entire 30-year legal career has been with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, which, he says, works in his and the county's favor.

"Lack of experience is a hindrance," he told the crowd. "If you don't have experience, you don't have the credibility to give advice [to your staff.]"

Knight spent five years in the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office, and also was a defense attorney. She says that working both sides of the court system has helped her career.

"If you haven't been a prosecutor, then you better know how to try criminal cases," she said.

Harrington cited that district attorneys with zero experience are getting elected because the public wants change. She pointed to a "staggering' opioid crisis, high crime rates per capita in Pittsfield and North Adams and a spike in domestic violence as red flags that the region is ready for change, too, in the Berkshire DA's office.

"We also have a District Attorney's Office opposed to any kind of criminal justice reform," she said.

Wednesday's political debate comes a month before the Sept. 4 Democratic primary that will essentially decide the race, since no other parties have candidates on the ballot in the November general election.

The winner will succeed former District Attorney David Capeless, who retired in March after nearly 14 years in office. Gov. Charlie Baker appointed Caccaviello — he was the first assistant district attorney at the time — to replace Capeless.

If elected, Knight and Harrington vow to improve the diversity of the office's staff.

"More people of color, more people of gender, more from the LGBTQ community," said Knight, who finds the Berkshire DA's office much less diverse than the one in Middlesex County.

Harrington finds that the current makeup of the Berkshire office has a "myopic view" of criminal justice.

"I will build diversity by having a great workplace that will inspire the community," she said.

Caccaviello defended his current staff that, he says, comes from diverse backgrounds and is full of integrity. He cited several factors, including the need for competitive salaries, as reasons whether qualified attorneys will work as prosecutors.

As for the perceived disparity in the criminal justice system, Harrington finds a disproportionate percentage of people of color represented in the courts across the state.

"We really don't know if people are not being treated fairly here, because the [Berkshire DA's office] doesn't track that," she said.

The perceived disparity of how bail is set for people of color, compared with white defendants, is an issue for Knight, who supports bail reform in the commonwealth.

"Bail is not for jailing people, but to ensure they appear in court," she said.

Caccaviello said he welcomes being part of solutions to any disparity issues.

The district attorney and his two opponents, as they did in their first debate, in May, addressed how they would handle police misconduct allegations.

Harrington would have a clear written policy on how the district attorney should handle such cases and likely rely on an outside agency to handle the investigation.

Caccaviello says his office has investigated, and can continue to investigate, police misconduct. He believes that handing off such cases to another agency won't erase the perception that the DA would have a conflict investigating police who his office works with regularly.

Knight wants to see better police training to avoid missteps by officers. She says police need the skill set to "bring the temperature down" on tense situations, especially involving suspects who are mentally unstable or have a drug problem.

Without compromising ongoing investigations, all three candidates vow to better educate the public on how the District Attorney's Office functions.

Since replacing Capeless, Caccaviello has his staff working on creating a Facebook page and has revamped the website to be more informative, which he says has already benefited the general public.

"Our community outreach service has received more requests," he noted.

Harrington plans to run the District Attorney's Office like her campaign — personally reaching out to the people she would serve.

"We have to be out in the community. We can't expect people come to us," she said.

If elected, Harrington would create a citizen's advisory board to the district attorney.

Knight says a more transparent District Attorney's Office would give everyone outside the courts a better understanding of how the district attorney does his or her job.

"The District Attorney's Office doesn't just impact the criminal justice system, but the entire community," she said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.