Former Suffolk County prosecutor: Berkshires 'witnessing history'
PITTSFIELD — Rahsaan Hall worked as a prosecutor in Suffolk County, and he knows the level of power that a district attorney holds in a community.
On Thursday night, he shared that knowledge with dozens of Berkshire County residents who are three months from voting in a somewhat uncommon contested race for the highest-ranking position in county law enforcement.
At the presentation in the Berkshire Athenaeum auditorium, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts' Racial Justice Program spoke about jail and prison recidivism rates, racial disparities within bail requests and incarceration rates, the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums in sentencing and concerns about the state's civil forfeiture law. A district attorney makes decisions and policy that can play a role in making the legal system more just, he said.
"It's about relinquishing some of the power they hold and giving it back to the people," Hall told the room at his bipartisan "What a Difference a D.A. Makes" event.
In the past 20 years, 77 percent of Massachusetts district attorney races have been uncontested, and this year, six districts have contested races, according to Hall, who told the group that it was "witnessing history."
All three candidates running on Democratic ticket for the Sept. 4 primary — Judith Knight and Andrea Harrington, both private practice lawyers, and interim Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello — were in the audience.
When Hall asked those in the nearly full auditorium who thought that the criminal justice system is working in Massachusetts, not one person raised their hand. A majority of the mostly white men and women did raise their hand to acknowledge that there was a difference in how people are prosecuted based on their race.
Nationally, there is a ratio of 6 black people incarcerated for every one white person, Hall said. But in Massachusetts, that ratio is 8 to 1.
While ultimately it is a judge who sets bail, it is the prosecutor who makes a range request and the district attorney who makes policies about those requests, Hall explained.
District attorneys also have an impact on how local police departments investigate and pursue their cases and how often diversion programs are used instead of jail time.
In Massachusetts, district attorneys also have the ability to collect data on the cases they prosecute, release that data to the public and create integrity units to review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, Hall said.
For years, the ACLU has been collecting data about the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, including conducting a statewide poll that showed a significant percentage of Massachusetts voters were unaware that a district attorney was an elected position or the role that they hold.
Of those polled, 81 percent said that if they were more familiar with the position, they would pay more attention during district attorney races.
That number is what prompted the "What a Difference a D.A. Makes" campaign, said Whitney Taylor, political director for ACLU Massachusetts.
Taylor said that the organization is well aware that the demographics of those who are able to show up at forums like Thursday's are not necessarily reflective of the entire community that is needed to be reached.
But the next step of the campaign is to recruit members of the local Berkshires community to get involved in the campaign so they can reach out to more demographics, Taylor said.
"The only rule of thumb is, you can't endorse a candidate," Taylor said of those wishing to get involved in the campaign.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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