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In their first public meeting, Berkshire DA candidates point to their records

NAACP Berkshire DA candidate forum

Incumbent DA Andrea Harrington and challenger Timothy Shugrue met in a candidate forum Wednesday hosted by the Berkshire branch of the NAACP, the ACLU and League of Women Voters.

PITTSFIELD — Incumbent Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington and her challenger, defense attorney Timothy Shugrue, sparred Wednesday night over issues from substance use, dangerousness hearings, immigration enforcement and overall public safety in the community.

The candidates stressed their differences for about 90 minutes before an audience of over 200 people during a virtual forum. The event, the first meeting of the candidates in the race for Berkshire District Attorney, was co-hosted by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, the Massachusetts League of Women Voters and the ACLU.

The Democrats both asked voters to look at their records to make their decision on who to support in the Sept. 6 primary.

Harrington said in her last 3 1/2 years in office, she’s taken the big ideas that served as the foundation of her 2018 campaign and brought them into practice in the office.

She said she’s implemented training programs for the office’s attorneys to combat bias and racial inequity in the criminal justice system, hired Spanish speakers and people of color to the office’s victim services division, and opened the office up to an ongoing study on plea deals in an effort to make her office more transparent.

Harrington said under her leadership the office has limited the number of people receiving criminal records, and worked to get people with substance use disorders into treatment programs.

The vast majority of criminal cases never make it to trial, are resolved by plea bargain instead. But due to the closed nature of plea negotiations between prosecutors and defense lawyers, it's difficult for researchers and the public to analyze how prosecutors exercise their discretion during sentencing. A research initiative led by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School in North Carolina aims to change that.

“We’ve also worked for systemic change and we have proven that I say what I mean and I do what I say I’m going to do,” Harrington said. “We have had a huge positive impact on communities across Berkshire County.”

Shugrue said his 36 years as a prosecutor and then a defense attorney have given him intimate insight into how the criminal justice system works and how it can be improved. Shugrue said his experience creating and fostering the work of the Berkshire County Kids’ Place, a nonprofit providing services to children and families dealing with violence, has shown the type of cross-agency collaboration and ideas he is capable of producing.

He said he’d bring his longstanding connections with law enforcement across the county and his experience with the National College of District Attorney’s association to rebuild collaboration and trust between the divisions of local criminal justice system.

“You have to have experience, you have to be in the arena,” Shugrue said. “I have seen so many things throughout my 36 years, both as a prosecutor and defense lawyer; I bring all that to the table. The courtroom is my home, my home court — it's like Fenway Park for me.”

Moderator Meg Bossong covered a variety of topics, but spent several questions diving into the nuance of the candidate’s responses to defendants with substance use disorders.

Harrington said that her office has a policy of dismissing cases outright that are charged for possession of personal amounts of drugs, arguing that these cases fall within a category of cases that bring charges would “we feel bring more harm than good.”

She said her office has also increased the use of statutory diversion programs, using the statute 131 times in 2021.

Shugrue said those numbers still aren’t high enough, and said he’d turn to the diversion programs as a primary response to substance use cases over dismissing low-level possessions.

“You can’t just dismiss them; you can’t kick the can down the road,” Shugrue said, pointing to the county’s rising number of overdose deaths between 2020 and 2021.

With the diversion program, "you give people the services… paid for by our citizens so that people can have service, get off the drugs, become employed and at that point become productive members of society," he said.

“That’s how you break the cycle," he added. "You don't just leave these addicts out there all by themselves.”

Shugrue, for the most part, deferred to the programs and powers built into the state’s court system. He said that he would take each case on an individual basis, but would not rule out working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and would consider notifying the agency of the immigration status of defendants in particularly violent cases.

“My message to the immigrant community and community at large is very clearly and unequivocally that my office does not cooperate with ICE," Harrington countered. "We do not notify ICE about anything about our cases at all, ever.”

The district attorney said that policy is rooted in the belief that the office should be allowed to see a prosecution through to its conclusion, without concern that a defendant will be deported, and to build trust among victims within the immigrant community that their status will not be shared with the federal agency.

During a question on dangerousness hearings — which can keep a person accused of a crime in jail for months without the possibility of bail if a judge finds them to be a danger to the community — Shugrue violated the forum’s rules to take a direct shot at his opponent's record on the issue.

Shugrue said Harrington had signed off on a recent effort by Gov. Charlie Baker to expand the dangerousness hearings, a description she resoundingly denied while stressing the utility of the hearings. Shugrue said he didn’t approve of the state effort for what have been viewed as racial inequities in the bill.

“I think it’s being misused instead of bail,” Shugrue said.

Harrington ran during her last campaign on a promise to eliminate a cash bail system. She said she’s lived up to that promise to reduce bail, which she said had become “a means to hold people pretrial without a fair process.”

She said that she understands that “there needs to be a lot of scrutiny around the use of dangerousness hearings,” but said the defendants in these situations still have access to attorneys and are provided due process.

“It's limited to people who have committed violent crimes,” Harrington said. “I do think that it's an important tool for public safety. I think that in order for people to support criminal justice reform, they need to be safe, they need to feel safe.”

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

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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