|100 Days: An Interview With District Attorney Andrea Harrington|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
04:00AM / Friday, April 12, 2019
|Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington is marking 100 days in office. |
Andrea Harrington is sworn in as district attorney 100 days ago. She ran promising reform in the DA's office.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It's been 100 days since the changing of the guard in the district attorney's office.
Andrea Harrington defeated incumbent Paul Caccaviello in November with a message of reform and change. She took the oath of office on Jan. 2 before a large crowd at the Berkshire Museum — and so began a new day in that office.
Earlier this week, Harrington announced the creation of a domestic violence task force.
It was one of her campaign promises and one that she envisions as being preventative in nature to curb rising numbers of domestic and sexual violence cases.
But that had been only one of many promises she made and, on Tuesday, she said she's made plenty of inroads on the others.
"Prioritizing domestic and sexual violence felt like an obvious choice because of the dire statistics and the tragedies we've seen here in Berkshire County," Harrington said.
"That was something I talked about during the campaign and that piece was part of a campaign promise. That was a very clear thing. It is a public health crisis and there has been a vacuum in leadership and I am one of the few countywide elected officials and I just feel like I'm the person who is in the position to bring the community together to work for solutions."
Elizabeth Freeman Center Executive Director Janis Broderick said the number of restraining orders requested in the county has grown by 15 percent since 2015, with 1,107 filings in 2018. That rate is 36 percent higher than the state average. Stockbridge, Adams, Pittsfield, and North Adams ranked first, third, fifth, and sixth in 2017 among the highest rates of rape per population, she said, and Pittsfield Police refer about 800 cases a year to the non-profit organization.
Further, from 2015 through 2018, there have been six cases in which a woman was murdered by a husband or ex-boyfriend, she said. The last domestic murder prior to that was in 2009.
The task force will bring in training for law enforcement to recognize the signs of human trafficking better and when someone is at risk. The office will track cases at the moment of a report being filed rather than waiting for charges. Staff members will be trained in the address confidentiality program and Harrington is working with state officials to review domestic fatality cases and bring new services to the county.
The new program followed an announcement that the office would end its reliance on cash bail. Harrington said bail is intended to ensure people return for court, but too often people are being held pre-trial because they can't afford the bail.
"For so long, the way prosecutors were judged and the way they made decisions was fear based. If you don't ask for somebody to be incarcerated and they go out and do something terrible, then it feels like a failure to the community. That has driven a lot of decisions we've seen prosecutors making throughout the country," Harrington said.
"To be a prosecutor and stand up and say we aren't going to ask for cash bail, we aren't going to ask people to be held pre-trial unless they are dangerous or a demonstrative flight risk, it felt like a bold thing to do."
The courts ruled that judges can't set bail at a price too high for the defendant to afford. Harrington said that is difficult to determine, especially with people who live in the margins. The focus is going to be only asking for cash bail if the person has a demonstrated risk of leaving the area to avoid prosecution. For the more serious crimes, the District Attorney's Office is focusing on having the defendant be held if he or she is a danger to others.
"In the past, bail has been used to incarcerate people pre-trial. It is just the way it functioned," Harrington said.
Those two initiatives are now in place but new initiatives are only one area on which the office has been focusing its work in the last four months. The first step was building a new team.
"It's the most foundational component of all of the things we are going to accomplish in this office, having the right team in place," Harrington said.
"We have hired 10 ADAs that were new to the office. We've hired five additional people, non-attorney positions, some of them new positions to the office like Helen Moon is the director of new initiatives, Dina Guiel is the director of operations. Those are new positions. We hired a new director of victim services and the director of communications, which is new to this office to have somebody doing that full time."
Harrington said the team includes two Spanish-speaking assistant district attorneys and she is in the process of hiring for three more positions: a Spanish-speaking victim advocate, a juvenile diversion case manager, and a director of community outreach.
"Those are going to be essential to fill in order to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Harrington said.
The early work has included revamping the organizational structure of the prosecutor's office and putting new leadership in place.
Karen Bell was hired to take over as first assistant district attorney. The director of communications job was revamped and Dennis Yusko hired to head that. Richard Dohoney was brought on to become more of a manager and to head district court. Jeanne Kempthorne was brought on as chief of appeals, to serve as legal counsel, and to head the ethics office — the latter two roles are new to the Berkshire County.
"We changed the leadership in the office. It was important to have leaders who believed in the values and the mission that voters voted for," Harrington said.
Guiel, as director of operations, is currently in the process of reviewing and changing the policies and procedures that will guide the office. It is a job Harrington said is important to get everybody on the same page.
"We needed to have a person who was focused on that. This office processes around 7,000 cases per year so there is a lot of work going on every day and we need specific people working on the organizational piece but also new initiatives and prevention work," Harrington said.
Harrington with State Auditor Suzanne Bump not long after taking office.
With new personnel in place, Harrington is bolstering their work with an array of training and educational sessions. Western New England College of Law professor Tina Cafaro was brought in to do a series of training sessions for assistant district attorneys including such things as dangerousness hearings to complement the move from cash bail. The team visited the House of Corrections and the Chicopee Women's Facility. The staff for different courts meets on a weekly basis to review cases and determine how to tackle them.
"We are really working on giving the ADAs the tools they need," Harrington said.
She is bringing in Adam Foss, an advocate for criminal justice reform, and Emily Bazelon, the author of the book "Charged," to discuss what the future of the criminal justice system can look like.
Meanwhile, the office is changing the way it reviews the work of an assistant district attorney. Harrington said she will be doing a pilot project in the fall with the organization Fair and Just Prosecution on how to evaluate the work of the district attorneys that reflect the 21st century prosecution.
"We are going to be providing our ADAs with the criteria for what they are going to be evaluated on," Harrington said.
Those efforts are setting the stage for a new culture in the office. Harrington is pushing for a shift from judging a prosecutor solely by the number of convictions to judging them on whether or not they made a just and fair decision.
Harrington said it is a shift to focusing more heavily on the "ethical and moral obligation" of a prosecutor rather than numbers.
"We make decisions every day. We sit around this table and we talk about what is the right thing to do? What's a fair thing? What's the just thing," Harrington said. "There have been two petitions for expungement (sealing or erasing a conviction or arrest) that we have supported and we are told this office has only ever opposed petitions for expungement. There have been cases that we have agreed for someone to go into treatment instead of seeking jail time. But we are also very aggressive with people who committed violence."
Harrington has also changed the way cases are assigned. She is midway into the process of creating a vertical prosecution model in which one prosecutor and one victim advocate are assigned to a case from the start to the end. Previously, a case could pass among many prosecutors.
"It's the norm in other offices but it is a change here in Berkshire County," Harrington said. "You are not invested in the case when it is not something you've been working on throughout the life of the case. It is difficult for the victims because they have to deal with different people all of the time."
She said as new cases come in, they are being assigned in that manner. She expects by July the entire caseload will be assigned that way. Harrington said when she took office there had been a significant backlog in cases that Bell has been focused on reducing.
With those pieces coming together, Harrington's team is focusing on more programmatic changes such as the domestic and sexual assault task force.
Moon was hired to head special projects and bring many of the initiatives Harrington had campaigned on to life. Her first task is to create a juvenile diversion program.
Harrington said such a program is mandated by state law but exactly how it will work in Berkshire County is being developed. Moon has been researching various models and reaching out to community partners who will serve a role in it. Harrington expects that to be in place within the next two months.
The juvenile program is also intended to be focused more on prevention. She envisions a school being able to refer a student to the office to get services, whether it be drug treatment or mental health treatment or anything else that they need.
"Our ultimate goal is a pre-arrest diversion program. We want a formal program. What is happening now is kids are being diverted informally, which in itself is not a bad thing, but we want to make sure that all kids are being treated fairly across the community," Harrington said.
"We want to make sure that kids on the west side of Pittsfield have the same opportunity for diversion and staying out of the criminal justice system as kids from Lenox."
Essentially, Harrington wants the community organizations to intervene with at-risk youth before they fall into the criminal justice system. Harrington said so often there are young people involved with firearms, drugs, or have mental health problems that could be helped before they go down the wrong path.
"We would be looking for the schools to be referring students to our diversion programs, really working hand in hand with them," Harrington said.
"I get a lot of reports from parents whose kids are being bullied. I think it is difficult for the schools because they don't want kids involved in the criminal justice system but there is a vacuum there that I think my office can help."
The office had a program focused on the schools that is being altered. She said the office will still teach classes on such things as sexting, consent, and bullying, but resource-intensive efforts of teaching and running programs in the school will be scaled back in favor of bringing in other service providers who can provide direct service to students.
"Historically the community outreach in this office really focused on providing direct service to the schools in the form of teaching classes. There are classes like the life skills class. The office put in a significant level of resources into this program. It is my goal to be more strategic about our approach to community outreach and engagement," Harrington said. "We are going to be looking to get help from other parts of the community to provide more of those direct services."
In the near future, Harrington says she wants to roll out more programs to address the opioid issue in the Berkshires. She wants to cut the demand for drugs down by getting more people into treatment and building a partnership with the probation system to make it more attractive for defendants to get help instead of a criminal record.
"If you are a person who wants to get help, we are going to help you get the resources you need," Harrington said.
She said she's been in conversation with the Massachusetts commissioner of probation about which type of programs can be used or piloted in the Berkshires to help create those pathways.
On the supply side, however, Harrington says her office wants to be aggressive in taking down large networks of drug dealers. She is calling on more law enforcement resources to be brought in to help limit the number of drugs being sold.
"We need more police officers. We need more state troopers. We've been working to make more connections with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office was in here last week. We are really looking to utilize all of the resources that we can," Harrington said.
She added that she met with the Insurance Fraud Commission to discuss ways it can help with issues of doctors overprescribing.
Another promise Harrington made was to review un-indicted allegations of sexual assault. She said she has formed an internal working group to do that but is currently facing difficulties in identifying specific cases.
"Our files here are incomplete about cases that ultimately were not charged. So we are left in a position where we have to do a lot of work just to identify cases where there was an alleged sexual assault and nothing charged," Harrington said.
"We started by requesting from the State Police Crime Lab a list of all of the rape kits they have from Berkshire County. It is going to take them a little bit to get that to us. But it is going to be a good starting point and we can cross-reference that with our local police departments and hopefully get their investigative files in those cases."
One case Harrington or her office isn't touching is the one that became a talking point in the election. An attorney, who supported Harrington, went on the attack against the former administration for not prosecuting a case allegedly at Williams College. Harrington said she opted to shift that case to another prosecuting office for review to avoid any issues of perceived impropriety.
"Because that became such a feature of the campaign — not from my campaign but it is was an issue that was talked about in the press during the course of the campaign — we felt that it was really in the interest of justice that a prosecutor from outside this office takes a look at that case. I wouldn't want to be in the position where a defendant or a suspect had serious questions about if there was a bias or a conflict of interest on part of the prosecutor," Harrington said.
"We sent that out to a prosecutor in Suffolk County who is reviewing the materials in that case and submitting a report as to whether or not they believe there is probable cause to send it to a grand jury."
Meanwhile, data is also delaying the process for another promise Harrington had made: to more closely track and report on outcomes specifically when it comes to people of color in the justice system. Harrington said the case management system isn't equipped to easily track that information. That is an issue that is happening across the state and Harrington believes the state may upgrade the 25-year-old system to more easily keep that information.
"It can be used to track the kind of data I want to track but it is not easy to implement. Statewide, the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association, we are all being asked to provide a lot more and different kinds of data than we have in the past and everybody recognizes the current technology isn't going to allow us to do it in a way that is practical," Harrington said.
"We are starting to talk to the Legislature about an updated data tracking management system. It is not an easy project but I do expect that down the road it is something we will be able to solve at a statewide level."
A citizens advisory board is in the making. That was an initiative she believes will help provide the office with better feedback and more diverse viewpoints on the criminal justice system than ever before.
"We have looked at the way David Sullivan, the Northwestern District Attorney's office, runs his citizens advisory board. They meet quarterly. Once we get our domestic violence, sexual violence task force up and running and functioning, the next thing will be to start looking at the citizen's advisory board," Harrington said.
The district attorney said she is also looking to hasten the speed at which a case goes through the system. But, the office really only has control of the pace of the prosecutors.
"Justice delayed is justice denied. It is a huge goal to move things faster. Things in the courts here move much slower than we'd like. We are really taking responsibility for the prosecutors part in that," Harrington said.
When she took office, the court was flexible and allowed for additional time to get prepared for many of the larger cases. Harrington said now the office is all caught up and she expects the assistant prosecutors to be prepared for trial every day.
"We are really in a position now where we are pushing defense counsel to be ready for trial. We are ready for trial. We have trials we can go on every time we go into court. We really are pushing to have cases tried," she said.
But Harrington also said she isn't pushing too fast. There are cases with multiple murders coming up, and she'd rather have the assistant district attorneys completely ready before going to trial.
"It is more important that we do those right than just rushing them through," Harrington said.