Berkshire district attorney's race: Harrington says county 'lagging behind' trying new tacks on criminal justice

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Editor's note: This is the second of three profiles of the candidates for Berkshire district attorney.

PITTSFIELD — In the sweltering heat of a muggy August afternoon, Andrea Harrington scrolled through voter data on her phone and looked around to find addresses in a neighborhood off Onota Street.

After a quick shake of her head to get her hair in place, and with a soft but eager smile stretched across her face, she approached the front door of an attractively landscaped home, ready to greet yet another Pittsfield resident and launch into her progressive campaign platform for Berkshire district attorney.

"Around the commonwealth, and even around the country, we are seeing people trying new approaches to criminal justice," Harrington, 43, said at a recent Eagle editorial board meeting. "We see communities trying new approaches, and Berkshire County is lagging behind. I can see how that is really hurting people in Berkshire County."

Harrington will face off in the Democratic primary Tuesday against District Attorney Paul Caccaviello, who has worked as a prosecutor in that office for nearly 30 years and replaced David Capeless when he retired in March, 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.

Harrington, a defense attorney who grew up in Richmond, where she lives with her husband and two children, has the least trial experience of the three candidates, with only seven criminal jury trials under her belt. That lack of trial experience, though, hasn't limited the support she has garnered from progressive community leaders in the Pittsfield area — including Mayor Linda Tyer and a slate of council members, all of whom have endorsed her in recent days.

Pittsfield city councilors in her corner include President Peter Marchetti, Vice President John Krol, Pete White (at large) and Helen Moon (Ward 1). North Adams councilors Jason LaForest and Marie Harpin also threw their support behind Harrington, as well as town leaders from around the county.

When questioned about her time in the courtroom, Harrington noted that there have been plenty of great district attorneys with less trial experience than she has, offering examples. What Berkshire County needs, she said, is a district attorney who will put more resources into prosecuting violent criminals and who will know when to use diversion programs, or other alternatives to committed sentences, for low-level offenders in district courts. And that's what she will do, she said.

If elected, she'll run the office like she's running her "sophisticated, grassroots" campaign, she said — by aligning herself with smart, competent people.

On this particular canvassing trek, she was joined by Krol, one of her most outspoken supporters.

As they walked door to door in the district that Krol represents, he greeted familiar faces, chatted about neighborhood news and introduced Harrington to the few residents she didn't already know.

After a brief outline of her platform, several residents assured Harrington that she had their vote before Krol, with ease, got them to agree to display a campaign sign on their lawns.

Harrington, who led an unsuccessful bid for a state Senate seat in 2016, credited a law school professor for educating her on the immense power of the state in criminal cases.

She got a closer look at that power in 2003, while doing post-conviction work in Florida.

Shortly after graduating American University Washington College of Law, Harrington kicked off her legal career in South Florida.

After spending about six months at a commercial litigation firm, she took a job with Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, representing clients on death row.

These individuals already had been convicted of capital crimes and exhausted their appeals, she said.

During the yearslong post-conviction cases, attorneys worked as a team to either prove that their clients didn't commit the crimes they were convicted of or that they deserved a life sentence instead of execution.

"It was really excellent training for me. It was training both on the side of getting a really deep understanding of why people get involved in the criminal justice system," Harrington said. "The other side was (training on) the tremendous power of the state."

Having only spent about three years at that job, Harrington said it would be "really presumptuous" to claim responsibility for cases that were successfully overturned on her watch, but she is proud of the work she did there.

Oftentimes, but not all the time, people who end up as a defendant in a criminal case have a history of trauma, are battling with addiction, or are suffering from another mental health issue, Harrington said she has learned.

She suggested that the Berkshire District Attorney's Office has done little to address the underlying issues of crime and has been overzealous in its prosecution of low-level drug crimes.

"I think they're pleading out child abusers to probation. They're not taking on some difficult sexual assault and rape cases that I would take on," she said. "That's where my time, effort, money (and) resources would go to: trying these tough cases, working hard to get convictions."

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As for first-time offenders in district courts, specifically those with addiction issues, Harrington pledged to fight for better treatment options in the region.

When pressed on what power a district attorney has in the treatment arena, Harrington acknowledged that it might not be a simple task, but she is confident that if the county had a district attorney who is invested in drug treatment, there would be more options.

"There's not an easy answer, and I don't pretend that it is or that I have the answers," she said. "But I will tell you that as district attorney, I will have a seat at the table in working with people in this community to find new and practical solutions."

One of those solutions, she said, would be aimed at domestic violence prevention, by launching a "high risk" task force of advocates and professionals trained in identifying when individuals are in dangerous situations and assisting them in getting out.

Domestic violence cases are difficult to prosecute because the victims often refuse to cooperate or testify, and often end up remaining in dangerous environments.

"Other communities are doing more prevention," she said.

Another initiative she would seek would be to bring a veterans court to the county.

Veterans' treatment courts are designed to handle criminal cases involving defendants who have a history of military service through a coordinated effort among the veterans services system, community-based providers and the court to address underlying issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries or sexual abuse.

The closest veterans court is in Holyoke.

Acknowledging that there might not be a need for an entire veterans court for Berkshire County, Harrington believes that it can be worked into the existing Berkshire drug court.

As for bail, Harrington said her office would request it sparingly.

"My position on bail is that the purpose of bail is to get people to return to court." she said, citing state law. "I expect it to be the practice of my office to not seek cash bail in district court cases."

Data about bail requests that are made and the defendant's demographic information will be logged, reviewed and made public, to ensure that people are treated fairly, she said.

"To me, the mission is about serving justice with integrity," she said.

If elected, Harrington said she would make sure that mission is carried out by all members of her office, some of whom would be new faces.

"Every attorney who works there has only worked there," Harrington alleged. "I think that gives them a myopic view of the role of the District Attorney's Office."

If elected, Harrington plans on building a transition team made up of people inside the current office and others.

"I'm looking for people with diverse experience in terms of personal experience and also professional experience," she said.

The promise of fresh ideas and data-driven reform in the District Attorney's Office has sparked excitement from some in the community.

In a neighborhood near St. Mark's Church, a woman was dropped off at her home with groceries.

After exchanging a few words of support with Harrington, whose campaign she had been following, the resident embraced her in a bear hug and planted a kiss on her cheek.

"I've never met that woman before in my life," Harrington said, smiling, as the resident walked away.

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


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