Editor's note: This is one of two profiles of the candidates for Berkshire District Attorney in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary.
LENOX — Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington says that over the last three and half years, she’s molded the office she holds into a national leader on what she terms "these big issues.”
Over a summer of campaigning, Harrington has asked voters to “keep the faith” that policies she’s put in place are showing results. They include responding to gender-based violence, helping defendants with substance use and mental health issues and combating racial bias within the court system.
At a recent house party in Lenox, hosted by Lenox School Committee member Meghan Kirby, Harrington spoke in the falling summer twilight with a small group of dedicated supporters about how she’d worked to reform the office and bring about a sea change in the way law enforcement and the community think about some of the county’s biggest issues.
“Writ large, we are changing the trajectory of this county, in terms of applying evidence-based approaches to substance use disorder and mental illness — and the fact that this culture of violence against women is no longer acceptable here in Berkshire County,” Harrington said.
Harrington’s supporters, gathered around small cocktail tables in Kirby’s backyard, said it’s this agenda — along with Harrington’s character — that secured their votes.
Bridgid Reed worked at one of the county’s needle exchanges, a harm-reduction program that allows people dealing with substance use disorder to exchange used syringes for clean ones to reduce the risk of infection.
She said Harrington’s focus on improving harm-reduction practices locally has won her support. Harrington says she’s expanded participation in the county’s drug court and has a policy of dismissing low-level possession offenses for “personal-use” amounts of drugs.
“I work a lot daily with people who are actively using and … a lot of people are pretending it isn’t happening because it’s the Berkshires,” Reed said. “But people are dying and dying in large numbers and the stigma is really huge. If someone is going to take away from what we’re already lacking [in treatment options], then that’s a real problem.”
Kirby said she appreciates that Harrington “has followed through on her promises.”
Harrington, during her 2018 election bid, promised to create a domestic violence high risk team. In December 2020, the district attorney launched such a program which she says has dedicated on-call prosecutors ready to handle domestic abuse cases.
“I think she’s done a wonderful job over the last four years,” Kirby said. “As a woman, I think focusing on violence against women — especially in Berkshire County — over the last couple years has been crucial. I think she’s really brought attention to the issue.”
The program works with a task force of local law enforcement, children's and victims advocates like the state Department Children and Families and Department of Probation Victim Services and organizations like the Elizabeth Freeman Center.
Harrington said this kind of multidisciplinary coalition building is work she’d like to continue in another term, adding projects that address mental health and what's known as restorative justice. Restorative justice is a model that focuses bringing both the victim and defendant together to understand and work through the impact of the offense.
Both Harrington and her challenger, Timothy Shugrue, have said they are in favor of exploring a mental health court — a kind of specialized court that has court-imposed mental health treatment conditions attached to probation.
She said she thinks her tendency to push the expectation of what the criminal justice system looks and feels like — sometimes outside of the courthouse altogether — is what gives her an edge over her opponent.
“I can envision something that works better for people and I see that really as a strength, as opposed to being just kind of embedded in the system that exists,” Harrington said. She notes that she’s the first Berkshire district attorney who didn’t work within the office before being elected to its head position.
“That's why I stand alone to a certain extent from the courts, my opponent and certainly his supporters, because they're resistant to change — because they are part of a system that they feel like is working for them,” Harrington said. “I look at it as a system that just isn't working well enough for the people here.”
Some have said Harrington’s direction has created a divide between the DA’s office and local law enforcement. At a recent debate at the Berkshire Athenaeum, Harrington called the relationship between the office and law enforcement “professional and collaborative.”
“I think it’s okay for the DA and for certain members of law enforcement to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum,” Harrington said at the time. “I don't think that it's necessarily, you know, a healthy thing for the district attorney and the police to be hand in hand because I don't represent the police. I represent the voters of this community who elected me.”
At the house party last week, Harrington reiterated that she doesn’t plan on changing her platform to appease law enforcement.
A common refrain from the district attorney on the campaign trail is that voters know “I mean what I say and I say what I mean.” She’s criticized her opponent for adjusting his message to his audience.
“The leadership in the office is critical,” Harrington told supporters gathered in lawn chairs at the Lenox event. “I think that people in Berkshire County need to trust that the district attorney is honest with them and says the same thing in different rooms."
"I say the same thing to the police chief, that I say to the NAACP, because these are my values,” she said.