STOCKBRIDGE — The last debate between the three candidates for Berkshire District Attorney on Tuesday mimicked the public discourse between their supporters throughout the campaigns: fiery.
At the WAMC-hosted event at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, candidates Paul Caccaviello, Andrea Harrington and Judith Knight took the opportunity to both reiterate their platforms and take jabs at the qualifications of their opponents.
In the Sept. 4 primary, voters will select the next district attorney from among the Democratic candidates, since no Republican is on the ballot.
District Attorney Paul Caccaviello succeeded David F. Capeless in March and has worked for more than two decades in the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. Andrea Harrington has worked as an attorney for 15 years, including in post-conviction work in Florida, defense work in juvenile court and labor law. Judith Knight has worked for 30 years as an attorney, including as a defense attorney, prosecutor and legal mediator.
Throughout the campaign, Knight and Caccaviello have pointed to Harrington's limited experience trying cases as her weakness. Harrington, though, has pledged that she is the candidate who will bring innovative change to the District Attorney's Office.
But those progressive initiatives — like the use of alternative sentencing and treatment for addicts, and bail reform — that Harrington touts aren't unique to her campaign, or innovative, Knight said.
In fact, Knight ran on the progressive platform against Capeless in 2006, she said.
"This has been coming for a long time," Knight said. "I was talking about the very same values 12 years ago, and others were, too."
But in order to "fix what's broken," she said, "You have to know how the system works."
All three candidates agreed that the biggest public safety concern facing Berkshire County is the opioid epidemic.
Harrington touted her work on the School Committee at the Richmond Consolidated School, where some students are being raised by grandparents because of the parent's addiction issues.
"Everyone in our community has been affected in some way by opioids," she said. "We have got to do something about the demand for drugs."
Opting for treatment over jail time for addicts in the criminal justice system is the way to mitigate the demand, Harrington said.
In addition to diversion programs, Knight said she would reach out to youths, both through yearlong drug education programming in middle and high schools, but also by putting drug forfeiture money toward a youth community center in Pittsfield. She also would invest some of that money on increasing treatment options in the county.
"The opioid hits right in the part of the brain where you feel connection and belonging," Knight said she was told by Dr. Andrew J. Gerber, medical director of the Austen Riggs Center, a psychiatric treatment facility in Stockbridge. "We all want that feeling. ...Connection is key."
Caccaviello said the District Attorney's Office already is on board with diversion programs and getting defendants into treatment programs.
Currently, the office collaborates with outside agencies like the Brien Center, mental heath professionals and law enforcement to work on solutions to the epidemic, he said.
In the spring, Caccaviello sent the office's lead narcotics prosecutor to a national symposium in Atlanta to collaborate with leaders across the country, he said.
Knight and Harrington said the former district attorney was guilty of overzealous prosecution of drug offenses.
Calling his 14-year tenure a "dark time," Knight pointed to a 2005 Great Barrington case in which 18 people were indicted on drug-dealing charges. Several of those young people went to trial and faced a mandatory minimum of two years in jail on marijuana-distribution charges, Knight said.
"What he did could have put them all in the District Court. They could have gotten treatment," she said. "Instead, he indicted every single one of them. That was not looking to see what was appropriate in each case."
In his response, Caccaviello called his predecessor "principled and unafraid."
Referring to the same 2005 case, Caccaviello said that not all the cases were brought to trial and it was community members who initially sought prosecution, because they were having trouble going to the movies because dealers would use that parking lot for business.
"That really demonstrates why this election is so important," Harrington said of Caccaviello's response. "They've continued to wage the failed war on drugs."
Referring to a letter to the editor in the Eagle, Harrington alleged that the attention of the office could be better spent on prosecuting sexual assault and rape cases, which, she said, often result in plea bargains.
"This is why politics has no play in this office," Caccaviello said, before disputing Harrington's claim.
Decisions involving plea bargains are made in consultation with victims and advocates, he said.
At the end of the debate, Knight and Caccaviello again touted their experience, while Harrington promised change.
Harrington asked residents for vote for her "if you want to reform the system you have."
"If you want the same old thing that we've been doing for the last 14 years, I'm not your candidate," she said.
"If you want progressive change, I'm your candidate," Knight said after. "Paul, you haven't seen what is happening outside of Berkshire County. ... Andrea, you have such little experience, you don't even know what you don't know."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.