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In first Berkshire DA debate, Harrington and Shugrue put their records head-to-head

PITTSFIELD — In the first debate of the Democratic primary race for Berkshire District Attorney, local defense attorney Timothy Shugrue told voters to look to his 36 years of courtroom experience to find an attorney with a deep understanding of both sides of the law, strong relationships with law enforcement and an ethos focused on “competence, confidence and compassion.”

Incumbent Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington conceded that her challenger has “more experience in the courtroom than I do," but said her election to the office nearly four years ago was a message from a community looking for a systemic reimagining of the county’s justice system. She called on voters not to “lose faith in the progress we are making.”

The hourlong debate was the candidates’ first opportunity to appear together in-person before voters, as well as pose direct challenges and questions to their opponent.

Harrington, speaking in support of the racial justice movement produced in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, pushed Shugrue to state his “position on systemic racism within the criminal justice system.”

She further challenged Shugrue to state his opinion on the Massachusetts Police Reform Bill, signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in late 2020.

“We will not tolerate that type of action in our community,” Shugrue said of the Minneapolis police officers who murdered Floyd. “We will make sure our police officers are trained and educated, so these things don't happen.”

Shugrue said he wouldn’t comment on the police reform bill during the debate “because there's so many components to that, that I want to address and I'll address that in the proper time.”

When given the opportunity to question Harrington, Shugrue asked the incumbent to tell voters the three most significant jury trials she’d handled.

“Attorney Shugrue, everyone knows that you have 36 years of experience, everyone knows you have more experience in the courtroom than I do. That’s not something that needs to be debated,” Harrington said. “What I am is a leader in the office … and being a leader in the office doesn’t mean spending all your time doing trials.”

Harrington said her record shows that she has increased the office’s budget, the diversity of its staff and created new units, like the special victims unit and high-risk domestic violence team, to focus on people victimized by crime.

The debate showed off fundamental differences in the utility each attorney sees in the court system. A series of questions focused on the way each candidate would choose to treat crimes involving substance use, people experiencing mental health crises, and illegal gun possession and violence.

Time and again, Harrington reiterated her belief that the best response to some offenses comes outside of the courtroom in a partnership between community organizations and the DA’s office.

Harrington has attempted to end the use of cash bail, calling it a “racist practice” that criminalizes poverty. Under her leadership, the office has increased its use of dangerousness hearings — a practice in which the DA’s office petitions the court to hold a defendant without bail before trial on the basis they present a specific risk to the community.

Shugrue said he'd had clients subjected to the policy in Berkshire County and criticized it as a way to "punish people for crimes they haven't been convicted of."

Shugrue said he believes deeply that pretrial probation programs can provide vital supports and accountability to struggling defendants. He said he wants to build out the programs offered within the courts, proposing the county consider implementing a mental health court similar to the one put in place in Springfield.

“Make no mistake about it, tough, effective prosecution can coexist with criminal justice reform,” Shugrue said. “They go hand in hand.”

Shugrue’s “tough” approach to prosecution has been called by some Harrington supporters as a signal that the defense attorney would implement a kind of “broken windows" policing if elected to the office.

The broken windows theory, popularized in 1990s New York under former mayor Rudy Giuliani, suggests that visible signs of crime creates an environment ripe for further crime. Proponents suggest that tough policing of minor crimes as a kind of preventative.

The policy has been widely criticized for giving law enforcement free rein to continue racist practices and policing.

Harrington took up the call of her supporters putting to voters directly that Shugrue was “pushing for broken windows policing.”

“Not once have I myself or anybody in my campaign ever endorsed the broken windows policy,” Shugrue said, calling the claim misinformation from the Harrington campaign. “It doesn't exist, we don't believe in it. There's been racial inequality in that policy and we have never once said that we support broken windows policies.”

Harrington said she has “the tape” showing otherwise. Shugrue said “I’d like to see that tape.”

Despite an impassioned back-and-forth call and response from the candidates, the evening ended cordially with handshakes and smiles between both attorneys. Voters will decide which candidate will lead the office in the next four-year term during the primary vote on Sept. 6.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

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