DA Harrington outlines early priorities during local NAACP meeting
PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County will have a new juvenile jail diversion program this spring, District Attorney Andrea Harrington told a crowd Wednesday.
City Councilor Helen Moon, the office's new director of special projects, is spearheading that program, which Harrington described as a vehicle to support kids in the community. The idea is to give young people tools to deal with the root causes of their issues with law enforcement, Moon said, rather than rush to potentially put them through the court system.
"Children are so impressionable, and they believe what we tell them," Harrington said. "And when we tell them they're criminals, they take on that identity."
During the Berkshire branch of the NAACP's monthly meeting, the new district attorney told a crowd of about 50 people in the Berkshire Athenaeum auditorium that she will use the power of her office to lift up the community. She's also working with legislators to bring in new funding to combat violence against women and to fight the opioid epidemic, she said, noting her trip last week to Washington to meet with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield.
She told them the office is beginning to work much differently than it has — a point that drew boisterous applause.
"Our system cries for reform," said Shirley Edgerton, a member of the NAACP's board, before introducing Harrington. The criminal justice system needs to do better by young people, she said, lest they potentially be branded criminals when it could be avoided.
"The tough-on-crime mantra has failed," she said, and now the county has a new district attorney who "will turn things right-side up again."
Harrington ran a reformer's campaign and, on Jan. 2, was the first woman to take reins of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
In addition to a new countywide juvenile task force, Harrington said, there will also be a task force addressing domestic and sexual violence. Six Berkshire women have lost their lives to domestic violence in the past four years, she said, and that's too many for a small county.
Harrington said she met with the county's state legislators, too, to brainstorm ways to bring new dollars into Berkshire County for crime prevention. She's prioritizing resources on a dual track, she said, putting money into prosecuting people who are dangerous while also building programs to help prevent people from getting to that point.
She'd like to reserve the cash bail system — it disproportionately hits people of color, she noted — for extenuating circumstances, using dangerousness hearings instead for those considered too much of a hazard to the public.
She said she supports changes proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker that would allow the court to consider criminal history when trying to determine whether a person is too dangerous to let back into the community. Right now, criminal history cannot be part of the proceedings, she said, "which is a big omission."
"For me, it is essential that we distinguish between people that are dangerous and people that need help," she said.
In law school, Harrington recounted, she learned from professor Angela Davis how the criminal justice system grew to replace the system of slavery. Instead, Harrington said she's busy building a new criminal justice system that is more proactive than punitive.
Moon said the juvenile diversion program will intervene before arraignment, rolling out programs rather than charges. She said the office will hire a case manager to work with young people, and aims to get into schools to work with those with issues before charges come about.
School resource officers and others who work in schools already have a sense of the kids with issues, she said, and that can serve as a starting point.
"We want to early intervention with them, not just talk about them," she said.
Diversion is great, an audience member said, but where are the resources going to come from to provide the kinds of social work, mental health and substance abuse services required to keep these people out of trouble?
"That's the thing I lie awake at night and try to figure out," Harrington said in response.
That's why, she said, she's making political alliances and working to negotiate new revenue streams.
"I really am working to bring in more resources," she said.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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.