Berkshire district attorney's race: Caccaviello 'running on my incumbency of service'

Posted

Editor's note: This is the first of three profiles, to appear on consecutive days, of the candidates for Berkshire district attorney.  This story  also was corrected to reflect the proper spelling of the district attorney's name.

PITTSFIELD — The sun hadn't yet risen when District Attorney Paul Caccaviello strapped on his inline skates for a daily morning trek on the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.

He has worn the same pair of blades since 1995, about six years after he started his career at the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, which he has been running since March.

"It's a great way to start the day," Caccaviello said while sitting on a bench, in near darkness, about 5:30 a.m. Friday. "It's very peaceful out here."

A daily exercise routine was first suggested to him by a professor at Western New England Law School in the 1980s, and he has kept one ever since.

Caccaviello, 53, served as the first assistant district attorney under David F. Capeless for 14 years, until he was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to take over the position when Capeless retired.

He will face off in the Democratic primary Sept. 4 against Andrea Harrington, who has worked as an attorney for 15 years, including in post-conviction work for people on death row, defense work in juvenile court and labor law; and Judith Knight, who has worked for 30 years as an attorney, including as a defense attorney, prosecutor and legal mediator.

Barring any Republican write-in candidates, the primary will decide the race.

Now, in his campaign to keep the leading position in the office he has worked in since he was a law student, Caccaviello faces praise for vast prosecutorial experience and blame for what some consider "prosecutorial overreach" under Capeless' watch.

"I'm not running as David; I'm running as Paul Caccaviello," he said at a recent Eagle editorial meeting. "I've said this before: Our commitment to justice is the same; our approach is different."

Since taking on the position this spring, Caccaviello already has made changes within and outside the office.

Among them are cultural competency training he made his staff complete last month, and his personal attempt to be more accessible by reaching out to community leaders and opening a dialogue, he said.

That effort is one way to combat what he acknowledged as a public perception that the office hasn't always served the interests of the minority population.

"It is disheartening to hear that is a perception," he said. "I think in order to address that concern, that approach is important. That's why I've reached out to people in the community, to have those conversations."

Unlike his two opponents, who are running on progressive platforms, Caccaviello said he wants to keep politics completely out of his campaign, and the office he runs.

That's why, when pressed on how he feels about bail requests or the use of charges that come with minimum mandatory sentences, he consistently has said those questions belong in the Legislature.

Decisions about bail requests, charges and sentencing recommendations should depend on a variety of factors, including the nature of the crime, the strength of the case and the mental health of the defendant, he has said.

"I'm not going to make any sweeping reform statement, which I've heard being made before," Caccaviello said. "I don't think that's appropriate. I think you need to make it a case-by-case assessment."

Caccaviello said his guiding mantra is "compassion when appropriate, but consequence when it's needed." That mantra, he said, comes from 30 years of prosecutorial experience.

"You can talk to me; you can try to work out a reasonable resolution. It will be fair," he said. "I certainly don't ask for the maximum (sentence) unless it's appropriate."

While being considerate of the defendant's history in each case is important, Caccaviello said he runs a "victim-oriented" office.

He is launching a domestic violence unit, which will include vertical prosecution, a single prosecutor and advocate assigned to each case from start to resolution. The unit also will include an animal cruelty sector, a crime that Caccaviello said is closely linked to domestic abuse.

As for drug crimes, Caccaviello said he already has linked the drug court prosecutor with the narcotics unit supervisor so they can keep each other informed on what they learn about how the opioid epidemic is playing out locally.

Transition criticized

Caccaviello was the subject of statewide criticism this year, after it was reported, first by Commonwealth Magazine, that Capeless took steps this winter to ensure that when he retired in March, with months left in his term, Caccaviello would replace him.

Capeless' actions, which enabled Caccaviello to run as an incumbent in the Sept. 4 primary, were detailed in emails between his and Baker's office.

Caccaviello said that Capeless first asked him if he would be interested in the job in January, and in early February he went to Boston to be interviewed by the governor. The job, he said, didn't start until he got the official appointment letter from the governor in March.

While, of course, there is value in the ability to run as an incumbent, Caccaviello acknowledged, the real value of the March appointment was to the community, he said.

If a caretaker had been assigned to the position until the election, Caccaviello would have had to give up his cases and leave the office during the campaign. State law prohibits assistant district attorneys from campaigning while working in the office.

"In this scenario, I leave my cases; I leave the stability of the office; I ruin the continuity of leadership in the office," he said. "The office loses institutional knowledge."

"I'm not running on five months of being district attorney, I'm running on my incumbency of service," Caccaviello said. "The decision of who sits in the district attorney chair is ultimately up to the voters. It always is."

'Demystify' courts

After gliding along the serene trail Friday, in the privacy that only the earliest of risers can enjoy, Caccaviello hit the gym for a half an hour, greeting regulars as he moved from machine to machine.

At 8:30 a.m., after a quick shower, Caccaviello began his workday, first with a meeting with a victim witness advocate, then at a public outing at the Pittsfield senior center.

At 11 a.m., he returned to the office, where he met with his community outreach and education specialists, a department he intends on expanding.

In a room full of binders, posters and an alcohol-prevention board game, three of the five outreach specialists shared their plans for upcoming events, including the trial court's first Cultural Appreciation Day in Berkshire County, and their growing waitlists for life-skills classes at county schools.

Caccaviello called the department's evidence-based work with students in anti-substance, anti-bullying and healthy relationship classes the original "diversion programs," referring to a term now used to describe alternative sentencing.

In addition to expanding staff in the department, Caccaviello also hopes to make sure the community is more aware of the work it has been doing in the county for more than a decade.

"It's sort of the goal here," he said, "to demystify the court system."

As for his campaign, Caccaviello said he is confident that his message and his years of experience on the job are registering with voters.

"We don't care if you're Republican, Democrat ... we care if you're a victim. We care about doing the right thing, and it has nothing to do with partisan politics," Caccaviello said.

And to those who have been advocating that the office is due for new blood, Caccaviello said he already is bringing that change.

"The 'breath of fresh air,' it's the new approach, and the fact that it's been informed by experienced public work," he said. "I think that is a benefit to the community."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions